Why Twenty One?

The History of the Legal Drinking Age in the United States

The drinking age during the history of the United States is a somewhat fickle number. For the overall majority of United States history, there has been no legal drinking age[1]. However, after Prohibition, an era stretching from January 16th, 1919, to December 5th, 1933 in which the making, selling or transporting of alcohol (but not the consumption) was outlawed, states had the power according to the 21st Amendment to set their own legal drinking age.[2] The state response in 1933 was somewhat uniform, with 32 states adopting a MLDA (minimum legal drinking age) of 21. 16 states adopted a MLDA of 18-20, while Alabama maintained full prohibition of alcohol, and Colorado took the opposite route and set no drinking age at all, legalizing alcohol for any age.[3] These new MLDAs set by states stayed mostly the same until the introduction of the 26th Amendment.

On July 1st, 1971 the 26th Amendment was ratified, establishing the right to vote for citizens from the ages of 18 to 21.[4] Most likely due to the Cold War and its effects (The Korean War and the Vietnam War) many young men were being called to fight for their country at the age of 18, without the right to vote. President Eisenhower believed this to be unfair, and strove to change the voting age to 18 to reflect military service age[5]. By the 1970’s however, this spurred a youth eccentric cultural viewpoint that had many states changing their MLDA’s to 18 to reflect the new voting age. The view was simple, if you can fight and vote for your country, then you should be able to drink alcohol as well. This viewpoint became engrained enough that between 1971 and 1976, 30 states lowered their drinking ages to 18.[6]

The effects were immediate. Between 1971 and 1976 over five million 18-20 year olds purchased alcohol. Just like that, fatalities involving 18-20 year old adults, automobiles, and alcohol began to rise. Fatal injury crashes increased by 17%, while overall accidents, fatal and non-fatal, increased by 15%.[7] It was clear that the new drinking age was killing young people. By 1984 President Reagan had established a federal minimum drinking age. On July 17th, 1984, all states had five years to adopt a MLDA of 21.[8] Since 1984, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the new MLDA has saved around 900 lives a year, making a total of 25,000 lives saved between 1984 and 2009.[9]

As science has progressed, we as a culture have also begun to discover other reasons to keep the drinking age at 21. The biggest argument is for brain development and how alcohol more greatly affects the brain of those under the age of 21, specifically the frontal cortex.

Today, the argument to lower the MLDA to 18 has returned, for similar reasons to when it was first enacted, and it would seem that times of war reignite the conversation. If you can fight and die for your country, then you should be able to drink alcohol. However, history has already proven that this experiment will only lead to increased death of young people between the ages of 18-20. This experiment has already played out once, and despite its obscurity, the fact is the MLDA will probably remain exactly where it is.

[1] Miron, Jeffery A., and Elina Tetelbaum. “DOES THE MINIMUM LEGAL DRINKING AGE SAVE LIVES?.” NBER WORKING PAPER SERIES. http://www.nber.org/papers/w13257 (accessed January 1, 2014).

[2] “Amendment XVIII – Prohibition of Liquor.” National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution/the-amendments/amendment-18-liquor-abolished (accessed June 18, 2014).

[3] Miron, Jeffery A., and Elina Tetelbaum. “DOES THE MINIMUM LEGAL DRINKING AGE SAVE LIVES?.”

[4] “Amendment XXVI – Right to Vote at Age 18.” National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org.” http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution/the-amendments/amendment-26-voting-age-set-to-18-years (accessed June 18, 2014).

[5] “Dwight Eisenhower, “State of the Union, 1954″.” Dwight Eisenhower, “State of the Union, 1954”. http://www.vlib.us/amdocs/texts/dde1954.htm (accessed June 18, 2014).

[6] Miron, Jeffery A., and Elina Tetelbaum. “DOES THE MINIMUM LEGAL DRINKING AGE SAVE LIVES?.”

[7] Shults, Ruth, et al. “Reviews of Evidence Regarding Interventions to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 21(4S) (2001): 66-88. – See more at: http://www.madd.org/underage-drinking/why21/history.html#sthash.gVlYy54e.dpuf

[8] “History of the Legal Drinking Age” MADD. http://www.madd.org/underage-drinking/why21/history.html (accessed June 18, 2014).

[9] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Traffic Safety Facts 2008: Young Drivers.” DOT HS 811 169. 2009. – See more at: http://www.madd.org/underage-drinking/why21/history.html#sthash.gVlYy54e.dpuf

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