The United States has the highest legal drinking age in the world, as established by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This act states, among other things, that states are required to enforce and/ or legislate a minimum legal drinking age of 21 years of age. In fact, state that don’t enforce or mandate the 21 year old drinking age law risk losing 10% of their federal funding for highway apportionment, under the Federal Aid Highway Act. Yet, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 has been met with much controversy.
It as President Reagan who signed this law into effective in 1984, and many credit Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) with being the most influential proponent for the act. Whether that is true or not, one thing is clear, the act was signed into law after much support from many special interests groups, of which MADD was definitely one.
Drinking has long been a government issue, though many do not understand why. In 1919, prohibition effectively prohibited everyone from drinking, regardless of age, and made it criminal to manufacture, sell, possess or consume alcoholic beverages. By 1933, prohibition was repealed, and alcoholic beverages were once again legal to possess and consume, but this prompted many states, cities, and municipalities to create legislation to control drinking.
A fairly consistent state regulation was to set a legal drinking age requirement. Many states were pretty consistent for liquor at setting the age at 21, but most of those did allow people who were 18 or older to purchase or consume the lower alcohol content products such as beer and wine.
Then enter the Vietnam Era, where soldiers as young as 18 years of age were asked to die for their country, but could not drink in their country, and many did not agree that a person who is considered legally an adult should not be allowed to make any and all adult choices, including whether or not to consume alcoholic beverages.
Many states did change legislation during the Vietnam Era to allow 18 year olds to drink, and most military bases, even in states with 21 minimum drinking ages, would allow people in active military, while on base, to consume alcoholic beverages at 18.
Eventually, however, the baby boomers all grew up, and what was good for them was no longer good for their children, and the very people who fought against the legal drinking age at 21 now were fighting for it. So by the end of the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, legislation about the minimum drinking age become a primary focus of our government. There were many studies, many ad campaigns, and a lot of research about the effects of alcohol on younger brains.
It was determined by several studies that a youth’s brain is not fully developed until about 21 years of age, and that because of that, alcohol affects youth’s brains differently than it does an adults. That magic number ’21’ kept coming up all over again, and eventually, the Act was passed requiring states to increase the legal drinking age to 21 or risk losing a percentage of funding for their highways. The Act gave them two years to do so. Some states did; some states didn’t – but currently, all states have enacted some type of minimum drinking age legislation, with certain exceptions being allowed by at least 31 states for parents providing it, entering establishments (for example, in Texas, you must be 21 to drink, but many bars allow you to enter the establishment if you are 18, you just are not allowed to drink while there), and other exceptions. Of course, the 21 year old drinking age minimum requirement does make exceptions for religious ceremony and medical purposes too.
Also, the federal law does allow for additional exceptions for possession for things such as employment. An 18 year old can work at a liquor store or bar or restaurant and serve alcohol, which allows them to possess it for this purpose, but they cannot consume it.
Some states are more specific about the prohibitions than others, and some municipalities actually have no legislation specifically related to drinking age. There is a lot of confusion over what is and is not allowed, and it varies so much by state, that it’s probably better to just be safe and not drink or possess alcohol if you are under 21 years of age, no matter what state you reside in.
However, the United States still has the highest legal drinking age of all other countries. Spain, Russia, Mexico, Ireland, England, and Australia all list 18 as the legal age, and Italy, Greece, Germany, Portugal and a few others allow their citizens to drink beer as young as 16. A few countries actually have no legal drinking age at all.
According to the Journal of American Public Health, as of January 2006, there are five states with pending legislation to lower the minimum drinking age in their state.