US Legal Drinking Age: History and How it Compares

James Flippin Contributor
US Legal Drinking Age: History and How it Compares

The legal drinking age in the United States has a long and varied history. Rarely has the age limit been the outcome of rational debate among elected officials. Rather, it’s been routinely changed as a result of pressure from social movements and people concerned about the consumption of alcohol. The following article gives some insight into the issue’s history and how the current American drinking age compares with other countries.

What is the legal drinking age in the United States?

The Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 sets the minimum legal drinking age in the United States at 21. Specifically, it requires states to prohibit the purchase and consumption of alcoholic beverages by anyone under that age. Given that the federal government cannot directly police each state to enforce this law, the statute gives Congress the power to withhold funds for highways and other transportation projects from any state that does not adhere to it. The law was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1987.

Age limits for alcohol consumption have traditionally been part of state laws. Minimum drinking age laws were viewed as something states should decide. The current federal government mandate owes mostly to the tireless work and activism of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). This group was formed in the early 80s. Its main purpose was to reduce the number of traffic crashes and traffic fatalities resulting from drunk driving. They believed that raising the legal age limit would help in this endeavor.

How Did We Get Here?

The legal drinking age story predates the moms who helped organize the raised age limit. There’s certainly many twists and turns when it comes to legal alcohol consumption and alcohol possession in the United States. Here is a brief recounting of that history.

The Colonial and Post Revolution Era

Back in the 18th century, when residents of what’s now the US were still the subjects of King George III, there was no drinking age. Alcohol laws were non-existent. Indeed, it was quite common to see very young adolescents drinking in taverns. It was also relatively rare to see women drinking in those days.

Of course, life being arguably harder back then, manhood started early. Boys as young as 13 were forced to become heads of households owing to the potential death of a parent. Former president and standout military leader Andrew Jackson acted as a scout and a soldier in the Revolutionary War before he reached his 16th birthday. He was also orphaned before that time period.

In short, there was nothing untoward about a young person drinking alcohol some 250 years ago. There was no such thing as underage drinking. Many minors were considered men in 18th century America.

The First State Minimum Drinking Age Law

Things began to change in the early 19th century. It was a time of religious revivalism as the Second Great Awakening took hold, and many people began to associate drinking and drunkenness with immorality. It was also starting to become common knowledge that alcohol abuse could quickly become a public health problem.

Wisconsin was the first American state to pass a minimum drinking age law in 1839. The law prohibited the sale of wine or liquor to anyone under the age of 18 without parental consent. Alcohol laws were finally established, and the concept of underage drinking had been born.

The Temperance Movement and Prohibition

Temperance got its start in the 1830s. At the time, it was seen as part of a larger progressive ideology that included the abolition of slavery, universal education, and, in many cases, women’s suffrage. The aim of people in the temperance movement was a complete ban on the possession of alcohol in the United States and the consumption of alcohol.

Although the temperance movement was inspired in part by religious sentiments, it was rooted in very practical concerns.

Nowadays, alcohol dependence, binge drinking, and other excessive alcohol drinking are frowned upon. This was not always the case. In the early 19th century, alcohol abuse was commonplace. It led to high instances of domestic violence, financial strain, and bankruptcy. There was a reason why the temperance movement was led mostly by women. They were the primary victims of this pernicious form of substance abuse.

Temperance took a backseat to the issue of slavery as the 19th century progressed, but it never truly went away. The movement gained steam in the early 20th century and had its decisive victory with the passage of the Volstead Act of 1919 and the passage of the 19th Amendment, also known as Prohibition.

During these years, there was no minimum legal drinking age because alcohol was illegal in the United States.

Post-Prohibition

When Prohibition finally ended in 1933 with the passage of the 21st Amendment, most states set their legal minimum drinking age at 21. In the years that followed, some states lowered it to 18.

When the 26th Amendment passed in 1971, and the national voting age was lowered from 21 to 18, most states changed their drinking age to match the voting age. Trends changed again in the late 1970s when states began raising the minimum drinking age to counter rising incidents of drunk driving fatalities.

The National Minimum Age Drinking Law

When the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, states began to raise the minimum age to 21. By 1988, all had done so.

However, the federal law itself has exceptions to this rule.

Which US states can you drink at 18?

Most of the carve-outs in the federal alcohol policy are related to religion and whether the underage drinker has the permission of their parents or legal guardian and is on their property. Under no circumstances can anyone drink while operating a motor vehicle. It is also illegal for anyone 18 years of age to drink away from their parent’s property or the designated religious function.

Here are states where you can drink at 18 and the conditions under which you can do so.

1. You can drink if you are on private property and have the consent of your legal guardian in the following states:

Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming

2. You can drink when on private property with or without the permission of a legal guardian in:

Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina

3. You can drink in an establishment that sells alcohol, including restaurants, with the permission of a legal guardian in:

Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming

4. You can drink for religious purposes in:

Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

5. You can drink as part of a school course in:

Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont

6. You can drink with the permission of a doctor in:

Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah, Washington, Wyoming

What are the penalties in the US for drinking at 18?

Penalties vary from state to state. The harshest punishments are reserved for underage drinkers who drink to the point of drunkenness or while driving. In some cases you can receive a fine of up to $200 if you are caught by law enforcement. A second offense can result in a $500 fine and suspension of your driver’s license for up to one year.

What is the legal drinking age in Mexico?

The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18

Here are the legal age limits in other parts of the world:

China: 18 years old

Russia: typically 18 years old, 21 for vodka and some other spirits

Iran: Banned

Spain: 18 years old

Brazil: 18 years old

As you can see, many other countries have set their age to 18. Britain, France, Australia, and Canada, including the province of Quebec, have done the same in most circumstances. The US is an outlier within OECD countries.

What do politicians in the US say about the legal drinking age?

Polling data suggests the public isn’t highly motivated to lower the drinking age limit. On the political side of things, Democrats at the federal and state level continue to support the 1984 law. Republicans, even those who believe in states’ rights and removing powers from Washington, DC, also typically continue to back the current legal age limit. The limit is especially popular in red states, as it tends to fall in line with the religious and moral sentiments of many citizens in those states.

From The Flag

There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to what the legal drinking age should be, and how it connects to other aspects of American life. You’ll routinely hear people say it’s ridiculous to suggest people can fight for the country’s military and vote in elections while not being able to legally buy beer. At the same time, thousands of people are killed in drunk-driving crashes every year, highlighting the complicated and deathly serious nature of the issue. As with most things in life, it’s likely a sense of moderation and compromise on a personal and societal level is the key to achieving a successful policy over the long term.