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November 11, 2021
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Should the Legal Drinking Age Be 21?

Happy young woman with balloons celebrating her birthday

Probably. Given that we now know that biological adolescence ends at 25, there are even some who are clamoring to raise it even further, by four more years.

The idea of raising the drinking age may seem odd. After all, at 21, the United States, barring a few exceptions, already has one of the highest minimum legal drinking ages (MLDA) in the world for a country where alcohol is not prohibited.

The reasoning is that a higher drinking age would reduce access to the people in the population who are most vulnerable to alcohol — teens.

Why is 21 the American MLDA?

The current American MLDA has been in place for close to 40 years, with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, having been passed by Congress in 1984, amidst heavy controversy. Before this law, the MLDA varied and was determined by individual states.

At the time, the rising incidents of drunk driving among young people and the resulting deaths were an increasing cause for concern. The concurrent and still-ongoing “War on Drugs” launched by the Reagan Administration also contributed to a general feeling that laws needed to be changed, as alcohol, along with cannabis, were tagged as so-called “gateway drugs” that disproportionately affected young people.

At the time the law was enacted, America was headed into mostly unknown territory. Many states had a legal drinking age of 18, as did most other comparable Western countries. Over the years, it was argued that higher drinking ages led to more binge drinking by teens, which meant that the law was counterintuitively creating a net negative effect rather than the benefits it promised.

However, four decades and hundreds of studies later, it seems that the proactive steps taken by Congress have led to a historic decline in alcohol consumption among young people. There have also been fewer alcohol use disorder (AUD) cases among the early generations who were first affected by the law.

Net Positives of a Higher Drinking Age

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no longer any debate about the benefits of America’s comparatively high drinking age, even when minors do continue to illicitly access alcohol in the present day.

Some benefits include:

  • A decline in alcohol consumption. This is especially notable among people aged 21 to 25. When states adopted the age 21 MLDA, consumption fell in this age group from 70% in 1985 to 56% in 1991. This reflects that adults are more likely to develop AUD when they start drinking at a young age.
  • A reduction in past-month drinking among persons aged 18 to 20 years, from 59% in 1985 to 40% in 1991. Today, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholismpegs the figure at around 24.6%.
  • 16% median decline in motor vehicle crashes in states that increased the legal age.
  • Fewer long-term adverse effects from birth defects and deaths from violence in states that increased the legal drinking age.

What Caused These Benefits?

The reduction of access to younger people is likely to be the single biggest factor in these generational gains. In all likelihood, teens will always have a means of getting alcohol if they are determined enough. However, deterring the ability to get alcohol on-demand, can on a macro scale, save lives.

By some estimates, up to 900 lives are saved annually, thanks to the higher MLDA of 21. And this is just lives saved on the road by preventing impaired driving incidents.

When the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was enacted, it was understood that about 9-in-10 adults with “alcoholism” or AUD started drinking heavily when they were in their teens. Why this was the case was not clearly understood at the time. However, today we know that it is likely to be related to the high degree of plasticity in adolescent brains.

While adult brains are fairly stable, teen brains are still in the process of rapid development. Addictive substances like alcohol or tobacco can more rapidly change the brains of young people, quickly setting the stage for substance use disorders that they may have difficulty addressing in adulthood.

Find Age-appropriate AUD Treatment Today

Alcohol use disorder can be a highly complex disease that requires personalized treatment. Younger people, especially, need a program that addresses their unique experiences and developmental needs.

Our team at Boston Drug Treatment Centers can give you access to programs throughout New England that specialize in treating AUD in young individuals. Call us at (857) 577-8193 to discuss your options.

Resources:

  1. DeJong, W., & Blanchette, J. (2014). Case closed: research evidence on the positive public health impact of the age 21 minimum legal drinking age in the United StatesJournal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Supplement, (s17), 108-115.
  2. Serdula, M. K., Brewer, R. D., Gillespie, C., Denny, C. H., & Mokdad, A. (2004). Trends in alcohol use and binge drinking, 1985–1999: results of a multi-state surveyAmerican journal of preventive medicine26(4), 294-298.
  3. Miller, J. W., Gfroerer, J. C., Brewer, R. D., Naimi, T. S., Mokdad, A., & Giles, W. H. (2004). Prevalence of adult binge drinking: a comparison of two national surveysAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine27(3), 197-204.
  4. Levy, S., Campbell, M. D., Shea, C. L., DuPont, C. M., & DuPont, R. L. (2020). Trends in Substance Nonuse by High School Seniors: 1975–2018Pediatrics146(6).
  5. Elder, R. W., Lawrence, B. A., Janes, G., Brewer, R. D., Toomey, T. L., Hingson, R. W., … & Fielding, J. (2007). Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sale of alcohol to minors: systematic review of effectiveness for reducing sales and underage drinkingTransportation research circular2007(E-C123), 181-188.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Underage Drinking: Fact Sheet.