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Nially_Bob's avatar

Why is the 'drinking age' in the USA 21?

Asked by Nially_Bob (3841points) June 15th, 2009

I am aware this question is not particularly thought provoking nor fascinating (or not for most I assume) but it has often inspired curiosity in me, perhaps simply due to my being raised amongst a different legal system (I have lived my entire life in the UK thus far) but nonetheless the curiosity is present. So why, may I inquire, is the legal age for consuming alcohol 21 in the USA? Granted there are obvious reasons such as the binge drinking issues in many areas of Europe (the UK certainly being no exception) but it occurs to me that firstly restricting the consumption of alcohol until such a late age is obviously going to provoke either illegal consumption or people who abide by the law until 21 and then cannot handle it neither biologically nor psychologically. Secondly, the age for smoking and joining the armed forces (dependant upon the particular branch) in the US is 18. People are expected to handle these responsibilities and make these choices at 18 yet cannot be trusted to enjoy an alcoholic drink without derailing?
I am exaggerating admittedly as there are evidently many bi-laws which overrule this law in various towns and counties however my fascination lies in the general conformity to the ‘21 law’.
Can anyone offer me some insight into this matter? Are there many protests against it? Does the law derive from a particularly ideology? Religious perhaps?

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23 Answers

tyrantxseries's avatar

ha ha ha ha
in Canada it’s 19 (in Quebec it’s 18)

juwhite1's avatar

Sen. Tom Osborne told me that it is because that is when the brain is developed enough to handle alcohol with minimum risk of becoming an alcoholic. He stated that he read a lot of research on this (he originally wanted to reduce the drinking age to match the draft age) but after learning about the brain’s development, he changed his mind. He said that the research indicated that the younger a person begins to drink, the more likely they are to develop alcoholism, develop serious drug addictions, and to die in alcohol related accidents. He stated that 24 would actually be a better age, but that since 21 was already in place, he couldn’t imagine trying to increase it.

whatthefluther's avatar

I believe drinking age is determined by each state and is not 21 years of age throughout the entire USA. I’ll see what I can find.

juwhite1's avatar

My recollection is that the federal government only subsidizes highway projects if a state agrees to 21. I think all have now bowed to the 21 rule. South Dakota was one of the very last to change from 19 to 21, and Texas was a pretty late adopter. It is state regulated, but the dollars from the Federal government eventually trumped the will of the states.

whatthefluther's avatar

Well, what I said above was only true until 1984. Here are drinking age limits throughout the world.

kheredia's avatar

I think its hypocritical to say that a young man should not drink before age 21 but is ready to go to war at 18. So he is man enough to kill but not to drink???

kevbo's avatar

@juwhite1, GA. Louisiana was a holdout as well.

ratboy's avatar

It was determined by a game of black-jack.

YARNLADY's avatar

Probably the insurance industry had a very good lobby.

alive's avatar

from my understanding juwhite1 is right.

recently there has been some “noise” being made over the drinking age. a number of college presidents have made statements that they believe the drinking age should be lowered.

it is a states right to determine the drinking age, but states are unlikely to adopt a lower age unless the federal government removes the restrictions of road subsidies (restricting money to only states who have made 21 the age).

being that it is a state’s right to make its own laws (which is also why pot is legal in some states and not in others), many states have made 21 the drinking age with a few exceptions.

for example in texas you can drink in a restaurant if you are accompanied by your parent or legal garudian, even if you are under 21.

in NM if you are on “real property” (i.e. your home) w/ your parent/guardian you can drink. if it is for religious purposes, you can.

so each state has its own specifics.

alive's avatar

(but idk why the federal government chose ‘21’ in the first place. any number is arbitrary. yes there has been research about drinking but every individual is different. and alcohol is never good for anyone if used in excess amounts. just like any drug.)

observer's avatar

The 10th amendment gives each state the right to govern itself and make it’s own laws: sovereignty. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The Federal Government has been violating this since Congress “ushered in a new era of federal regulation under the commerce power,” beginning with the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890. They impose their will by withholding federal funds to states that refuse to comply with certain laws.

Garebo's avatar

Definitely, the insurance lobby; or is it the determined effort of the federal government to overpower the states ability to legislate in a representative way since they are clearly inept in dealing with such a national safety issue.

observer's avatar

A bit of both…

Garebo's avatar

I concur.

loser's avatar

I’ve always wondered why such a nice round number was chosen. I’d have to go with the blackjack theory and just add that I suspect alcohol was somehow involved in the decision making process.

robmandu's avatar

My understanding is that if you join the military at 18 and go into a bar on base, then you can drink what you want.

So I agree it’s a weird split, but I think this makes it an interesting compromise. Certainly beats compulsive military service as required in some countries.

onesecondregrets's avatar

Because the US government is one big, heaping, steaming pile of ignoramus.

YARNLADY's avatar

@robmandu On base? maybe, but generally the rule for military is to follow the laws of the state, or country where stationed. My son was put in rooms with other underage men because of the drinking laws in Pensacola.

robmandu's avatar

@YARNLADY, yah, I’d be interested to hear from anyone under drinking age who can confirm/deny it.

YARNLADY's avatar

Per “In the “old days” anyone on active duty could consume alcohol on military installations, regardless of the legal drinking age off-base.

However, in the mid-80s, advocacy groups, such as MADD (Mothers Against Drunken Drivers) lobbied Congress to change this. Federal law (United States Code, Title 10, Section 2683) requires military installation commanders to adopt the same drinking age as the state the military base is located in. The only exception to this rule is if the base is located within 50 miles of Canada or Mexico, or a state with a lower drinking age, the installation commander may adopt the lower drinking age for military personnel on base.”
See Dod regulations.

robmandu's avatar

and a GA for you! Thx!!

ItsAHabit's avatar

The major reason for the age 21 drinking law is that the U.S. has a strong temperance background that still influences public policy over 75 years after National Prohibition (1920–1933) was repealed. Upon Repeal, about 40% of the population lived in states that retained state-wide prohibition. Even today, about 6,000,000 people live in the hundreds of dry counties. And the U.S. has one of the highest proportions of non-drinkers among modern societies. That’s reflected in our current neo-prohibitionism that attempts to stigmatize alcohol and marginalize adults who choose to drink.

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