Legal Drinking Age

The legal drinking age is the age at which people are legally allowed to purchase alcohol. This is not necessarily the same age at which people may drink alcohol in private, such as with their families. Legal drinking ages vary from country to country, and sometimes within countries.

In the US, the legal drinking age is 21 in every state. In the 1970s the drinking age was lowered to 18 in some states to correspond with the voting age. The switch back to an age 21 drinking age came after a 1984 law passed by Congress which required states to set the minimum legal drinking age at 21 to get certain funding for transportation costs because of the number of deaths caused by young people drinking. By the mid-1990s every state had complied.

Each US state does have slightly different restrictions. While they all prohibit the purchase of alcohol by people under 21, some allow people under 21 to drink in certain circumstances, like if they are married or if someone over 21 is present. People under 21 may drink alcohol in religious ceremonies.

In most of Europe the drinking age is between 16 and 18 for purchasing alcohol, and younger people are often allowed to drink alcohol in private with their families. It should be noted that in Europe teens do not begin to drive until they are at least 18, and thanks to good public transportation and the high cost of having a driver's license and a car, some do not drive until even later.

Most Latin American countries have a legal drinking age of 18, as do most African and Pacific Island nations, and many countries in Asia.

In other countries the drinking age is the same or even later than in the US. In parts of India the legal drinking age is 25. Other nations ban drinking alcohol altogether, particularly those with a dominant Muslim population, whose religion forbids them from using alcohol.

Arguments for lowering the legal drinking age

A minority of people in the US are in favor of lowering the legal drinking age, usually to 18. Their arguments for this include:

  • Teens drink alcohol anyway, so setting the drinking age at 21 hasn't worked.
  • 18 year olds are allowed to vote and serve the military, so they should also be allowed to drink. Some argue that the lower drinking age should only apply to military servicemen and women.
  • If younger people were allowed to drink it would be easier to monitor their alcohol use.

Most of those who advocate for lowering the drinking age want to see education play a bigger part in teen alcohol abuse prevention. For instance, teens would be allowed to drink, but only under adult supervision, or only after taking classes about responsible use of alcohol and receiving a "drinking license." Of course, this assumes that the adults monitoring teens would also be responsible alcohol users.

Arguments against lowering the legal drinking age

Though there is a movement to lower the legal drinking age in the US, most people are still in favor of keeping it at 21. Experts in some countries with legal drinking ages of 16 or 18 even advocate raising the legal drinking age in those countries. Some of the reasons for having the legal drinking age at 21 include:

  • Teenage drinking and driving is a major cause of death among teens, and easier access to alcohol would increase the number of teen deaths. It is estimated that raising the drinking age to 21 has saved thousands of lives, not just of teens, but of other drivers on the road who might have been the victims of drunk teen drivers.
  • Studies have shown that the brain keeps developing until the early 20s, and drinking alcohol before the brain is fully developed causes damage to the developing brain, especially to the parts of the brain related to memory and learning.
  • People who begin drinking early are more likely to drink too much or develop alcoholism.
  • Teens who drink are also more likely to use drugs and tobacco.
  • Teen drinking has been linked to teen suicide.
  • Teens who drink are more likely to be sexually active or engage in risky sexual behavior
  • If 18 years olds have legal access to alcohol it is more likely that younger teens will be able to get alcohol as well.
  • At 18 young people are beginning many other life changes, such as starting college or a full-time job, entering into a serious relationship, and moving out on their own. Adding drinking alcohol to this list might interfere with success in these other areas.
  • Making it legal for 18 years olds to drink would not necessarily make it easier to monitor their alcohol use because they are still likely to drink with friends, or to be living away from home.
  • European countries with lower drinking ages have more instances of alcohol-related illnesses.
  • The minimum legal drinking age would work better if states enforced it better

People on both sides of the legal drinking age argument agree that teen drinking can have serious consequences and that more needs to be done to educate teens on the dangers of alcohol abuse.


Alex Johnson, MSNBC, "Debate on lower drinking age bubbling up" [online]

American Medical Association, "Minimum Legal Drinking Age" [online]

Federal Trade Commission, We Don't Serve Teens, "Dangers of Teen Drinking" [online]

American Psychology Association, Monitor on Psychology, "Teen drinking more dangerous than previously thought" [online]

Anna Tomova, "Sydney Academic Asks Drinking Age To Be Raised to 19 Years" [online]

Related Article: Underage Drinking Consequences >>