If you’re a parent, chances are good that you’ve heard something like this from your teenager: “Why do I have to wait until 21 to drink alcohol? It’s not that way in other countries, and they don’t have as much trouble with teen drinking as the United States does. So what’s so special about 21?”
Your teen is partially right to be concerned. Many nations set their minimum drinking age at 18, and many of them report lower rates of alcohol use disorder than the United States does.
How the Drinking Age Became 21
Though teenagers may see 21 as an arbitrary choice for the legal age of alcohol consumption, the age references a law that dates back many centuries to an English common law allowing men to become a knight on or after their 21st birthday. During the mid-20th century in the United States, 21 was also the minimum voting age for American citizens.
Another misconception is that current federal law specifically mandates a minimum drinking age of 21. That’s not exactly true; the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (passed in 1984) doesn’t prohibit teenagers from drinking. But the act does say that if the minimum age is set lower than 21 in a state, then that state would see their federal highway funds cut.
The Yo-Yoing Minimum Drinking Age
Unsurprisingly, due to the act, all states raised their minimum drinking ages to 21 by 1988 (although 12 states never had to change the minimum). Many states had lowered the age to 18 or 19 using the logic that if a person was old enough to be drafted into the military and vote, then he or she should be allowed to drink alcohol as well.
In the 1970s, many health advocates began to notice the problem of drunk driving and the injuries and deaths it caused. As a result, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began lobbying lawmakers to raise the drinking age to address this issue.
The Pros and Cons of the Drinking Age
Even today, Americans still debate the usefulness and relevance of having the minimum drinking age set to 21. Here’s a glance at the arguments of both sides:
For Keeping the Drinking Age At 21:
- It helps prevent alcohol-related driving deaths among 18- to 20-year olds.
- It makes it more difficult for teenagers to obtain and misuse alcohol, and some of the benefits of avoiding alcohol-related risks as teens carry over into adulthood.
- It indirectly encourages teens to stay in school.
For Lowering the Drinking Age:
- The decrease in alcohol-related traffic fatalities may be associated with other factors (such as seat belts, safer cars and higher drunk driving awareness) more than with a higher minimum drinking age.
- Though fewer teenagers drink alcohol today than in previous years, those who are drinking are consuming more alcohol.
- The high drinking age is pushing adolescent drinking further behind closed doors and out of the supervision of parents and college administrators who could be teaching them safer and healthier drinking habits.
How The Drinking Age Might Go Up
Though some of today’s teens may bemoan the fact that the minimum drinking age is so high, they might want to be thankful that it isn’t any higher. These days, a case could be made that the legal drinking age should be raised to 25 because recent research showed that the human brain isn’t fully developed until a person is in their mid-twenties. Therefore, researchers and health advocates might argue that alcohol consumption by young adults in their early twenties might put them at risk for hindered mental function resulting from impeded brain development.
However, there is no concerted effort to raise or lower the minimum drinking age in the United States right now. The best way to protect adolescents from the problems associated with alcohol consumption is for parents and school administrators to educate teens about the dangers and consequences of drinking.
Individuals under 21 who have already developed a dependence on alcohol would likely benefit from an inpatient or outpatient teen alcohol treatment program customized to the teen’s individual needs. So whether you agree with the legal drinking age being 21 or not, you should always remain focused on the most important goal: to give teenagers and young adults the guidance they need to practice responsible drinking habits once they reach the legal drinking age.
Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.