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What is the Debate over the Legal Drinking Age in the United States?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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There are a number of arguments as to why the legal drinking age in the United States, now set in most states at 21, should be lowered, remain the same, or be raised. It helps to have some historical background on the drinking age. The current federal limits, which prohibit buying anything but very low alcohol beers (about 3%) in some states, were set at 21 in 1984. Many states had temporarily lowered this age during the Vietnam War; many soldiers drafted into the war claimed that if they were old enough to fight or die for their country, they were certainly old enough to decide whether or not they wanted to drink alcohol.

The pushback on the legal drinking age in the United States came in 1984 largely due to groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and their leaders like Candy Lightner, who argued that raising the minimum age could result in far fewer cases of drunk driving and drunk driving related deaths. Statistical evidence gleaned after the legal drinking age was increased show there was certainly, particularly in the onset, quite a bit of merit to Lightner’s argument, and the US saw a reduction in drunk driving deaths and accidents after the 1984 law was established, especially among drivers under the age of 21. Proponents for lowering the limit say this was due not to the new restrictions, but to education on the dangers of drunk driving.

The main arguments for lowering the legal drinking age in the United States, aside from the military argument, can be summed up in the following ways:

  1. Lowering the drinking age means that alcohol isn’t seen as the forbidden fruit, which would make fewer people tempted to try it.
  2. Countries with a lower drinking age appear to have fewer problems with alcoholism.
  3. People will drink in private, in potentially dangerous situations, whereas being able to legally obtain alcohol in public settings would be less dangerous.
  4. In addition to being able to serve in the army at the age of 18, people can also sign contracts, vote and get married. If they are ready for these responsibilities they are surely ready to drink.

There are more arguments, including those that statistics showing that the benefits of a higher drinking age are not as strong as supposed.

Arguments against lowering the drinking age include the following:

  1. Raising the minimum age has decreased drunk driving, accidents, and alcohol related deaths in people younger than 21.
  2. Though some people underage continue to drink, raising the age does limit access to alcohol and does decrease underage drinking.
  3. People under 21 may not be mature enough to handle drinking and may be more at risk for behaviors like binge drinking and for addictions like alcoholism.
  4. Having laws in place that prohibit the selling of alcohol to minors gives the state a way to enforce limits, and provides natural consequences of drinking that may be punishable by law, discouraging underage drinking.

It is unlikely that the US government will change drinking age to 18. Most people in government do not support a change. There is additional concern that lowering the threshold age might invite younger people to drink sooner, since children under 18 could argue that they are nearly 18 and thus entitled to drink. There remain strong arguments on both sides, with little likelihood that the laws will change in the near future.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon252385 — On Mar 05, 2012

Don't lower the drinking age. Do jail repeat offenders!

By anon208654 — On Aug 23, 2011

It's never easy to pick a specific legal age for *any* act, be it marriage, military service, voting or alcohol consumption. One 18 year old may possess enough maturity or self-control to handle an occasional drink, but the 18 year old standing next to him or her may not. I've known 14 year olds who could have handled military service, but I've also known 30 year olds who shouldn't be trusted with a pocketknife. Whenever a government tries to come up with a minimal age for an adult-level activity, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.

Once the minimal legal age for military service and voting was lowered to 18, this set up a real problem with governmental hypocrisy. Why shouldn't a young soldier be allowed to drink alcohol after a stressful day of combat duties? Why shouldn't a person who can be legally married and vote in elections be allowed to buy a fifth of vodka at the local beverage store? The answer is not that straightforward, however.

Voting does not have a chemical effect on the voter's mind. A voter cannot have too many things to vote on and become too civic-minded to drive home. A young soldier may be able to handle a weapon after weeks of intensive training, but not be able to handle a 3,000-pound vehicle after drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol is a drug, and many 18 year olds do not have the emotional or physical fortitude to handle that drug.

I don't believe, however, that 21 year olds are automatically granted the ability to handle their alcohol consumption. Many generations ago, people didn't live as long, so 21 would have been seen as something approaching middle age, not the very beginnings of adulthood. Setting the drinking age at 21 made sense when the average lifespan in the US was around 50.

Personally, I wouldn't want to see the drinking age lowered below 21, especially since teens can drive at 16. The thought of an 18 year old intoxicated driver with only two years of driving experience being on the same road as me does not make me feel very good.

By anon131272 — On Dec 01, 2010

If by law the age of 18 makes you an adult then you are in fact, an adult. You can get married, serve alcohol, fight in war, buy a house, sign a contract, but you can't drink alcohol.

This isn't fair. It is wrong to say all 18 year olds can't make the right decisions because they haven't lived long enough. But at 21, just 3 years older, you have enough experience to drink? While death among teenagers is caused in many cases by car wrecks while intoxicated, but same goes for older people.

I personally know that if something is against the rules, it makes doing it seem more fun. If the drinking age was lowered, a lot of teens probably wouldn't even want to drink because that's the norm. If the next generation of kids grow up with the law being 18, then that's normal and drinking as a teenager won't be such a big deal, the way it is now.

By subway11 — On Nov 01, 2010

Cafe41-Colleges who want their students to be able to drink often make the legal drinking age debate, but many of these schools also engage in hazing activities that occur during rush week when students are hoping to get into to fraternities and sororities.

College students have died as a result of alcohol poisoning in the blood which really ends the arguments for lowering the drinking age to 18. Kids should watch graphic drunk driving films and hear testimonials about people are whose lives were destroyed due to underage drinking.

Watching these films in elementary school is a good idea. This should be part of the curriculum so that kids early on understand the consequences and will be less likely to engage in risky behavior like this.

By cafe41 — On Nov 01, 2010

Oasis11-You are absolutely right. There was a case where underage binge drinking was taking place in a home, and the parents threw all of the kids out instead of letting them stay for the night because they were obviously intoxicated.

Well, one girl drove home and lost her life in a car accident. Kids do not understand that death is permanent and risky behavior like this can lead to horrific results.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving one in three eight graders drinks alcohol and one in three people will be involved in an alcohol related crash in their lifetime. These are hard drinking age debate facts that can’t be ignored, so lowering the drinking age to 18 should never be considered.

The 18 drinking age law on alcohol consumption should not ever be passed.

By oasis11 — On Nov 01, 2010

Bhutan-The arguments from lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 involve the fact that legally people that reach the age of majority, which is 18 are considered adults and can sign legal documents and even serve in the armed forces.

While this is true, there are many factors that involve the lack of maturity and judgment that a person of the age of 18 has.

Such a person does not understand the consequences of their actions because they have not lived long enough to understand and lack the proper perspective.

Also, teenagers have an air of invincibility that allows them to think that they will live forever.

In addition, lowering the drinking age to 18 might make young women and men vulnerable because it is easy to take advantage of someone that is drunk. When you lose control like that only terrible things could happen which may include death.

By Bhutan — On Nov 01, 2010

The legal drinking age of 21 is the ideal age for adults to start drinking. Underage drinking is a problem because teenagers often can not control the amount and level of alcohol that they consume.

They are twice as likely to get drunk and the number one cause of death for teenagers are car accidents due to intoxication.

More education is needed to teach young children the effects of underage binge drinking. Children as young as 12 are starting to drink and according to MADD, the Mother’s Against Drunk Driving that 28% of kids aged 12 to 20 drink alcohol.

This early drinking that includes teenagers underage drinking creates a potential for kids to get addicted to alcohol and eventually become alcoholics.

Teenage drinking problems lead to failing grades and higher drop out rates. In addition, experimentation with drugs is highly likely. As a matter of fact, teenagers who drink alcohol or do drugs regularly are five times as likely to drop out of high school. What future does a kid that drops out of high school have?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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