Why 21?

More than 25,000 lives have been saved in the U.S. thanks to the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age. This law
continues to prevent tragedies — decreasing crashes by an estimated 16 percent and keeping young people safe.

Over a quarter of 8th graders have tried alcohol.

Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2015). Monitoring the Future national survey results on drug use, 1975-2014: Volume I, Secondary school students. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan, 599 pp.

Youth who start drinking before age 15 years are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years.

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, MD; 2016.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

MYTH: Shouldn’t MADD focus more on drunk driving prevention with teens instead or innocent underage drinking?

Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash.  MADD knows that by preventing underage drinking today, we can end drunk driving tomorrow.

Hingson, Ralph, et al. “Age of Drinking Onset, Driving After Drinking, and Involvement in Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Crashes.” DOT HS 809 188. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, January 2001. Read more

MYTH: Europeans let their kid drink at an early age, yet they do not have the alcohol-realted problems we do.

Actually, in Europe, young people have higher intoxication rates than in the United States, and less than a quarter had lower or equivalent rates to the United States. Also, a greater percentage of young people in a majority of Europe report binge drinking at higher rates then compared to their US counterparts. 1-2 Most European youth have higher rates of alcohol-related problems because of their heavy drinking.

Perhaps the best example of fact versus myth is what happened in New Zealand. In 1999, New Zealand lowered its purchase age from 20 to 18. Not only did drunk driving crashes increase, but youth started to drink earlier, binge drinking escalated, and in the 12 months following the decrease in legal drinking age, there was a 50 percent increase in intoxicated 18- and 19-year-old patients at the Auckland Hospital emergency room.3

1. The ESPAD Report 2003.  Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries.  Published 2004. Read excerpts here.
2. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2004). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2003 (NIH Publication No. 04-5506). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Read the overview here.
3. Kyrpi, Kypros, et al.  “Minimum Purchasing Age for Alcohol and Traffic Crash Injuries Among 15- to 19-Year-Olds in New Zealand.” American Journal of Public Health, January 2006, Voi 96, No. 1.  Read the study here.

MYTH: Alcohol is not that big of a deal anymore. Shouldn’t I be more worried about other more dangerous drugs?

Teen alcohol use kills 4,300 people each year – that’s more than all illegal drugs combined.

Sacks JJ, Gonzales KR, Bouchery EE, Tomedi LE, Brewer RD. 2010 National and State Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Am J Prev Med 2015; 49(5):e73–e79. Read more

MYTH: The law only makes youth want to drink because it’s a “forbidden fruit.”

When the “forbidden fruit” is no longer forbidden, youth simply drink more. In states where the drinking age was 18, young people drank more than in states where the minimum drinking age was 21. They continued to drink more as adults in their early 20s.4

4. Maisto, S.A., & Rachal, J.V. (1980). Indications of the relationship between adolescent drinking practices, related behaviors, and drinking age law: An examination of data from a national sample. In H. Wechsler (Ed.), Minimum drinking age laws: An evaluation (pp.
155-176). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co. Read more