Talking Points/Arguments:
Answering the Critics of Age-21

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

Lowering the drinking age will reduce the allure of alcohol as a "forbidden fruit" for minors.

Lowering the drinking age will make alcohol more available to an even younger population, replacing "forbidden fruit" with "low-hanging fruit."

The practices and behaviors of 18 year-olds are particularly influential on 15 - 17 year-olds.(2) If 18 year-olds get the OK to drink, they will be modeling drinking for younger teens. Legal access to alcohol for 18 year-olds will provide more opportunities for younger teens to obtain it illegally from older peers.

Age-21 has resulted in decreases, not increases in youth drinking, an outcome inconsistent with an increased allure of alcohol. In 1983, one year before the National Minimum Purchase Age Act was passed, 88% of high school seniors reported any alcohol use in the past year and 41% reported binge drinking. By 1997, alcohol use by seniors had dropped to 75% and the percentage of binge drinkers had fallen to 31%.(3)

Lowering the drinking age will encourage young people to be responsible consumers. They'll get an idea of their tolerance and learn to drink under supervision at bars (or on campus, if in college), rather than at uncontrolled private parties away from school.

No evidence exists to indicate that kids will learn to drink responsibly simply because they are able to consume alcohol legally at a younger age. Countries with lower drinking ages suffer from alcohol-related problems similar to those in the U.S.(4)

Responsible consumption comes with maturity, and maturity largely comes as certain protective mechanisms, such as marriage and first job, begin to take hold.

Supervision does not necessarily lead to responsibility. Many bars encourage irresponsible drinking by deeply discounting drinks and by heavily promoting specials, such as happy hours, two-for-ones, and bar crawls.  

Raising the drinking age has apparently increased responsibility among young people. Compared to 1980 when less than 21 was the norm, fewer college students in 1995 reported drinking in the past month (68% vs. 82%) and binge drinking (39% vs. 44%). Also, more college students disapproved of binge drinking (66% vs. 57%).(5)

The 1978 National Study of Adolescent Drinking Behavior found that 10th - 12th graders in states with lower drinking ages drank significantly more, were drunk more often, and were less likely to abstain from alcohol.(6) Additionally, national data show that high school seniors who could not legally drink until age 21 drank less before age 21 and between ages 21 - 25 than did students in states with lower drinking ages.(7,8)

At 18, kids can vote, join the military, sign contracts, and even smoke. Why shouldn't they be able to drink?

Ages of initiation vary -- One may vote at 18, drink at 21, rent a car at 25, and run for president at 35. These ages may appear arbitrary, but they take into account the requirements, risks, and benefits of each act.

When age-21 was challenged in Louisiana's State Supreme Court, the Court upheld the law, ruling that "...statutes establishing the minimum drinking age at a higher level than the age of majority are not arbitrary because they substantially further the appropriate governmental purpose of improving highway safety, and thus are constitutional."(9)

Age-21 laws help keep kids healthy by postponing the onset of alcohol use. Deferred drinking reduces the risks of:

  • developing alcohol dependence or abuse later in life.(10)

  • harming the developing brain.(11)

  • engaging in current and adult drug use.(12,13)

  • suffering alcohol-related problems, such as trouble at work, with friends, family, and police.(14)

Minors still drink, so age-21 laws clearly don't work.

Age-21 laws work. Young people drink less in response. The laws have saved an estimated 17,000 lives since states began implementing them in 1975, and they've decreased the number of alcohol-related youth fatalities among drivers by 63% since 1982.(15,16)

Stricter enforcement of age-21 laws against commercial sellers would make those laws even more effective at reducing youth access to alcohol. The ease with which young people acquire alcohol -- three-quarters of 8th graders say that it is "fairly easy" or "very easy" to get -- indicates that more must be done.(17) Current laws against sales to minors need stiff penalties to deter violations. Better education and prevention-oriented laws are needed to reduce the commercial pressures on kids to drink.

Lowering the Drinking Age in the Past Has Sacrificed
Public Health and Safety

  • State motor vehicle fatality data from the 48 continental states found that lowering the drinking age for beer from 21 to 18 resulted in an 11% increase in fatalities among that age group.(18)

  • In Arizona, lowering the drinking age increased the incidence of fatal accidents by more than 25% and traffic fatalities by more than 35%.(19)

  • Lowering the drinking age in Massachusetts caused an increase in total fatal crashes, alcohol-related fatal crashes, and alcohol-related property damage crashes among 18 - 20 year-old drivers.(20)

  • From 1979 - 1984, the suicide rate was 9.7% greater among young people who could legally drink alcohol than among their peers who could not.(21)


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. 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.

3. Johnston, LD, O'Malley, PM, and JG Bachman, "National Survey Results on Drug Use, Monitoring the Future Study: Volume 1, Secondary School Students," 1995 and 1997a.

4. Bridget F. Grant, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, at press conference on the age at onset of alcohol use, Washington, DC, January 14, 1998.

5. Johnston, LD, O'Malley, PM, and JG Bachman, "National Survey Results on Drug Use, Monitoring the Future Study: Volume 2, College Students and Young Adults," 1997b.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Laixuthai, A and FJ Chaloupka, "Youth Alcohol Use and Public Policy," Contemporary Policy Issues, 11:70-81, 1993.

9. Manuel v State of Louisiana, 1996.

10. 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.

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

12. 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.

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

14. 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.

15. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), "Traffic Safety Facts 1996: Alcohol," 1997.

16. NHTSA, "1995 Youth Fatal Crash and Alcohol Facts," February 1997.

17. Johnston, LD, O'Malley, PM, and JG Bachman, 1997a.

18. 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.

19. Arizona Department of Public Safety, "An Impact Assessment of Arizona's Lowered Legal Drinking Age and a Review of Previous Research," Statistical Center, 1981.

20. Cucchiaro, S, et al., "The Effects of the 18-year old Drinking Age on Auto Accidents," Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Operations Research Center, 1974.

21. 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.

February 1998

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