Addressing Underage Drinking
This law continues to prevent tragedies—decreasing crashes by an estimated 16 percent9 and keeping young people safer from many risks.13
Sometimes, without knowing all the facts, people assert that youth shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 21 to drink. James C. Fell, a public health researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, responds to their questions.
Why do we make young people wait until 21 to drink alcohol?
Many activities have ages of initiation. A person must wait until age 16 to start driving, age 18 to marry without parental consent, age 35 to become president, and so on.
The age limit for alcohol is based on research which shows that young people react differently to alcohol. Teens get drunk twice as fast as adults,9 but have more trouble knowing when to stop. Teens naturally overdo it and binge more often than adults.
Enforcing the legal drinking age of 21 reduces traffic crashes,4-6 protects young people’s maturing brains,12,14 and keeps young people safer overall.
Can’t parents teach their teens how to drink alcohol responsibly by giving them small amounts—under supervision—before they reach 21?
Some states permit parents to do this with their own child (rarely, if ever, with someone else’s child), but there’s no evidence that this approach actually works.3 As matter of fact, there is evidence to contrary. When teens feel they have their parents’ approval to drink, they do it more and more often when they are not with their parents. When parents have concrete, enforced rules about alcohol, young people binge drink less.
Would lowering the legal drinking age make alcohol less of a big deal, and less attractive to teens?
History says no. When states had lower legal drinking ages in the U.S., the underage drinking problem was worse.3 For example, before the 21 minimum legal drinking age was implemented by all states, underage drunk drivers were involved in over twice as many fatal traffic crashes as today.3
I thought Europeans have fewer underage drinking problems … is it because their kids drink from an earlier age?
That’s a myth. European countries have worse problems than America does, as far as binge drinking and drinking to intoxication.2 Studies show that Europe has more underage drunkenness, injury, rape, and school problems due to alcohol.1,3 Since alcohol is more available there, it actually increases the proportion of kids who drink in Europe.
Some people propose a 40-hour alcohol education course for teens that would entitle teens to drink before 21. Is this a good idea?
Research shows that education alone doesn’t prevent risky behaviors. For example, driver education by itself does not reduce youth car crashes. Beginning drivers need other restrictions in place, such as curfews and passenger limits, to stay safe. In addition, there are clear health risks associated with underage drinking.7,14
1. European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs. Read more
2. DiClemente, Ralph J. et al “Parental Monitoring: Association With Adolescents' Risk Behaviors” Pediatrics 107: 6 June 2001, 1363-1368 Read more
3. Fell, James. From “Chapter 2: Federalism: Resolved, the Federal Government should restore each State’s freedom to set its drinking age.” in Ellis, Richard and Nelson, Michael (eds.) Debating Reform. CQPress Publishers, Fall 2009.
4. Fell, J.; “Minimum Legal Drinking Age Policy Knowledge Asset,” website created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Substance Abuse Policy Research Program; March 2009. Read more
5. Fell, James C. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Oct. 2008 “An Examination of the Criticisms of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age 21 Laws in the United States from a Traffic-Safety Perspective” Read more
6. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis “Lives Saved in 2012 by Restraint Use and Minimum Drinking Age Laws” DOT HS 811 851 A Brief Statistical Summary 2013. Read more
7. National Institutes of Health, “Fact Sheet: Underage Drinking” Read more
8. National Institutes of Health, “Fact Sheet: Alcohol-related Traffic Deaths” Read More
9. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Statistics on Underage Drinking Read more
10. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Research Findings on Underage Drinking and the Minimum Legal Drinking Age” Read more
11. National Institutes of Health, Alcohol Policy Information System “The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act” Read more
12. Shults, Ruth A., Elder, Randy W., Sleet, David A., Nichols, James L., Alao, Mary O. Carande-Kulis, Vilma G., Zaza, Stephanie, Sosin, Daniel M., Thompson, Robert S., and the Task Force on Community Preventive Services. “Reviews of Evidence Regarding Interventions to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving.” Am J Prev Med 2001;21(4S). Read more
13. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking 2007. Read more
14. Zeigler DW, Wang CC, Yoast RA, Dickinson BD, Mccaffree MA, Robinowitz CB, et al. The Neurocognitive Effects of Alcohol on Adolescents and College Students. Prev Med 2005 Jan;40(1):23-32. Read more