Fact Sheet:
Lowering the Minimum Drinking Age Is a Bad Idea

State Age-21 laws are one of the most effective public policies ever implemented in the Nation...I am chagrined to report that some supposedly responsible officials would like to repeal them.(1)

Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Purchase Age Act, to encourage each state to enact a minimum legal purchase age (MLPA) of 21 by 1986. The result was impressive: an estimated 1,071 lives were saved in 1987 alone. From 1975 - 1996, the estimated number of lives saved reached nearly 17,000.(2) In addition to a 63% decline in alcohol-related crash fatalities among young drivers since 1982, findings show that the MLPA has decreased the number of DWI arrests, youth suicides, marijuana use, crime, and alcohol consumption by youth.(3,4)

Youth Alcohol Consumption

  • High school seniors who could not legally drink until age 21 drank less before age 21 and between ages 21 - 25 than did seniors in states with lower drinking ages.(5,6)  Similarly, a national survey of 16 - 21 year-olds found that teens from states with a higher MLPA drank less frequently.(7)
  • The 1978 National Study of Adolescent Drinking Behavior found that 10th - 12th graders in states with lower drinking ages drank significantly more, were less likely to abstain from alcohol, and were drunk more often than students in states with a drinking age of 21.(8)
  • A study of New York college students documented that students who began drinking at younger ages were more likely to drink heavily in college. They were also more likely to report alcohol-related problems such as trouble at work, with friends, family, and police.(9)
  • The behavior of 18 year-olds is particularly influential on youth ages 15 - 17, as young people typically imitate the practices of those who are slightly older, rather than the practices of those who are significantly older.(10)  Therefore, if 18 year-olds can legally drink, their immediate, younger peers will drink too.

Fatalities, Crashes, and DWI Arrests

  • State motor vehicle fatality data from the 48 continental states found that lowering the MLPA for beer from 21 to 18 during the 1970s resulted in an 11% increase in fatalities among this age group.(11)
  • An Arizona Department of Public Safety report found that fatal accidents increased over 25% while traffic fatalities increased more than 35% after the state MLPA was lowered from 21 to 19.(12)
  • A Michigan study found that police reports of “had been drinking” crashes increased 35%, while the incidence of nighttime single-vehicle crashes among young men increased 17% after the state reduced its MLPA from 21 to 18.(13) Another Michigan study found that DWI arrests increased 141% for 18 - 20 year-olds after the state lowered the MLPA. Roadside surveys showed that the proportion of 16 - 20 year-old drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) over .05 more than doubled.(14)

Other Alcohol-Related Problems

  • The younger a person begins using alcohol, the greater the chance of developing alcohol dependence or abuse some time in their life. Of those who begin drinking at age-18, 16.6% subsequently are classified with alcohol dependence and 7.8% with alcohol abuse. If a person waits until age-21 before taking their first drink, these risks decrease by over 60%.(15)
  • The earlier a person begins using alcohol, the greater the risk of current and adult drug use(16, 17) and harm to the developing brain.(18)
  • Between 1979 and 1984, the suicide rate was 9.7% greater among adolescents and young adults who could legally consume alcohol than among their peers who could not.(19)
  • Using national data on alcohol and drug use among high school seniors from 1976 - 1987, one study found a decrease in marijuana use associated with increases in the MLPA.(20)
  • In raising the MLPA from 18 to 21, states observed an average 16% decrease in the rate of vandalism arrests, compared to an average 1.7% increase in states with a constant MLPA of 18.(21)
  • In Australia, lowering the drinking age was associated with an increase of 20% to 25% in cases of male delinquency.(22)
  • An Australian study of two states that lowered their MLPA found “a significant increase” in hospital admissions as a result of non-traffic alcohol-related accidents.(23)


1. Jim Hall, Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board, at press conference on the National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month, Washington, DC, December 18, 1997.

2. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), “Traffic Safety Facts 1996: Alcohol,” 1997.

3. NHTSA, “1995 Youth Fatal Crash and Alcohol Facts,” February 1997.

4. New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, “Minimum Legal Purchase Age and Traffic Safety: Facts and Practices,” January 1996.

5. O’Malley, PM and AC Wagenaar, “Effects of Minimum Age Laws on Alcohol Use, Related Behaviors and Traffic Crash Involvement Among American Youth: 1976 - 1987,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 52(5):478-491, 1991.

6. Laixuthai, A and F Chaloupka, “Youth Alcohol Use and Public Policy,” Contemporary Policy Issues, 11:70-81, 1993.

7. National Center for Health Statistics, “National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,” 1971-1974 and 1976-1980.

8. Maisto, DA and JV Rachal, Indications of the Relationships Among Adolescent Drinking Practices, Related Behaviors, and Drinking-Ages Laws,” In Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws, Wechsler, H (Ed.), Lexington, MA: DC Heath Co., p155-176, 1980.

9. Barnes, GM, et al., “Alcohol Misuse Among College Students and Other Young Adults: Findings from a General Population Study of New York State,” The International Journal of the Addictions, 27(8):917-934, 1992.

10. Bonnie, RJ, “Discouraging Unhealthy Personal Choices Through Government Regulation: Some Thoughts About the Minimum Drinking Age,” In Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws, Wechsler, H (Ed.), Lexington, MA: DC Heath Co., p39-58, 1980.

11. Cook, PJ and G Tauchen, “The Effects of Minimum Drinking Age Legislation on Youthful Auto Fatalities, 1970 - 1977,” Journal of Legal Studies, 15(4):159-162, 1984.

12. Arizona Department of Public Safety, “An Impact Assessment of Arizona’s Lowered Legal Drinking Age and a Review of Previous Research,” Statistical Center, 1981.

13. Douglas, RL and JA Freedman, “Alcohol-Related Casualties and Alcohol Beverage Market Response to Beverage Alcohol Availability Policies in Michigan,” The University of Michigan, Highway Safety Research Institute, 1977.

14. Hammond, RL, “Legal Drinking Age at 18 or 21 -- Does It Make Any Difference?” Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 18:9-13, 1973.

15. Grant, BF and DA Dawson, “Age of Onset of Alcohol Use and Its Association with DSM-IV Alcohol Abuse and Dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Study,” Journal of Substance Abuse, 9:103-110, 1997.

16. Mills, CJ and HL Noyes, “Patterns and Correlates of Initial and Subsequent Drug Use Among Adolescents,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 52(2):231-243, 1984.

17. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, “Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use,” p31, October 1994.

18. Little, PJ, et al., “Differential Effects of Ethanol in Adolescent and Adult Rats,” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 20(8):1346-1351, November 1996.

19. Jones, NE, et al., “The Effect of Legal Drinking Age on Fatal Injuries of Adolescents and Young Adults,” American Journal of Public Health, 82(1):112-115, 1992.

20. O’Malley, PM and AC Wagenaar, 1991.

21. New York State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, “Drinking Age Laws and Vandalism Arrests,” May 1984.

22. Smith, DI and PW Burvill, “Effect on Juvenile Crime of Lowering the Drinking Age in Three Australian States,” British Journal of Addiction, 83:181-188, 1987.

23. Smith, DI. “Effect on Non-Traffic Accident Hospital Admissions of Lowering the Drinking Age in Two Australian States.” Contemporary Drug Problems. 13(4):621-639, 1986.

February 1998

To read our talking points and arguments against lowering the minimum drinking age, click here.