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Why Is the Drinking Age 21?


Last month, the parliament in Turkey passed legislation ostensibly designed to curb alcohol consumption among Turkish youth.

Retailers may not sell alcohol between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. No alcohol may be sold within 100 meters of educational or religious centers. Educational and health institutions, sports clubs, and gas stations will be banned from selling alcohol. Although the advertising of alcohol is already illegal, the new law forces TV stations to blur images of alcoholic beverages shown on the screen. All liquor bottles must display warning signs about the dangers of consuming alcohol. There will also be stricter penalties for drunken driving.

“We don’t want a generation walking around drunk night and day. We want a youth that is sharp and shrewd and full of knowledge,” said Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in defense of the legislation. The Turkish president signed the legislation into law on June 10.

Yet even with those restrictions on alcohol sales, residents of Bridgewater, Connecticut, who want to purchase alcohol would have an easier time in Turkey than in their own town — the last remaining “dry” town in Connecticut. But Connecticut is not alone; thirty-two other states have laws that allow counties and local jurisdictions to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Three of those states — Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee — are “dry” by default; individual counties must vote to become “wet.” More than half of the 75 counties in Arkansas are “dry.” There are 35 municipalities in New Jersey that prohibit the retail sale of alcohol. The county in Tennessee where the Jack Daniel’s distillery is located is a “dry” county!

Although every state in the Union has its own peculiar laws regarding the sale, possession, manufacturing, and consumption of alcohol, there is one thing that is uniform throughout the country — the drinking age of 21.

Why is the drinking age 21?

The United States is one of only three developed countries in the world with a nationwide drinking age over 18. The other two countries are Iceland and Japan, which both have a drinking age of 20.

The main problem with the United States’s having a drinking age of 21 is that the age of majority is 18 (19 in Alabama and Nebraska), as it is throughout most of the world. That is the age when a person assumes the legal rights and responsibilities of an adult. Thus, anyone in the United States who has reached the age of 18 is legally eligible to vote, run for office, enter legally binding contracts, marry, engage in consensual sex with other adults, adopt children, join the military, be subject to the draft (when the draft is in force), purchase tobacco (except in Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, where one must be 19), and purchase pornography; that is, everything under the sun except buy a beer.

Whether the age of majority should be higher, lower, or kept at age 18 is irrelevant. Whatever the age of majority, it makes absolutely no sense for it to be lower than the drinking age. In most countries, the age of majority coincides with the drinking age.

So why is the drinking age 21 in the United States?

Before Prohibition (1919), which prohibited only the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol, not the drinking of it, only a handful of states even had a legal drinking age. After the repeal of Prohibition (1933), all of the states gradually established a minimum age to purchase alcohol. The most common age was 21. After the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1971, which prohibited the states from setting their voting age above 18, most states lowered their drinking ages, usually down to 18. From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, some states raised their drinking ages to 19, 20, or even 21. But by mid 1988, every state in the Union had raised its drinking age to 21.

Why is that? Why is the drinking age 21?

The answer is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (H.R.4616, P.L. 98-363), which mandated that the states raise their drinking ages to 21 or their federal highway funding would be cut by 10 percent beginning in fiscal year 1988.

On April 14, 1982, Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12358 establishing the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving. The commission was composed of twenty-six members appointed by the president plus two members of Congress from each House. The functions of the commission were to:

(a) heighten public awareness of the seriousness of the drunk driving problem;

(b) persuade States and communities to attack the drunk driving problem in a more organized and systematic manner, including plans to eliminate bottlenecks in the arrest, trial and sentencing process that impair the effectiveness of many drunk driving laws;

(c) encourage State and local officials and organizations to accept and use the latest techniques and methods to solve the problem; and

(d) generate public support for increased enforcement of State and local drunk driving laws.

Although the commission was supposed to exist for one year, Reagan signed another executive order extending the term of the commission to December 31, 1983.

On December 13, 1982, “An Interim Report to the Nation from the President’s Commission on Drunk Driving” was released. It recommended that “States should immediately adopt 21 years of age as the minimum legal drinking age for all alcoholic beverages.” In a statement issued on April 5, 1983, Reagan noted this recommendation and informed the public that three states had already raised their legal drinking age. The commission’s final report was issued in November of 1983 prefaced by a letter from Reagan stating that drunk driving was “a national menace, a national tragedy, and a national disgrace.” The commission’s eighth recommendation (out of 39), “Minimum Legal Purchasing Age,” was not only that the states should raise their drinking age, but that

legislation at the Federal level should be enacted providing that each State enact and/or maintain a law requiring 21 years as the minimum legal age for purchasing and possessing all alcoholic beverages. Such legislation should provide that the Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation disapprove any project under Section 106 of the Federal Aid Highway Act (Title 23, United States Code) for any State not having and enforcing such a law.

Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act on July 17, 1984. It had been passed in the House by voice vote, passed in the Senate with an amendment by voice vote, and then agreed to in the House by unanimous consent; that is, it had no measurable opposition in either House of Congress. In an official statement, the president said he was convinced that the bill would “help persuade State legislators to act in the national interest to save our children’s lives, by raising the drinking age to 21 across the country.”

There have been some major criticisms leveled at this legislation:

1. That the exclusive interest in raising the drinking age marginalized the 38 other recommendations in the commission’s final report.

2. That the majority of 18–20-year-olds choose to ignore the law and drink anyway, which meant that in many cases they drank unsafely and irresponsibly in clandestine locations to avoid prosecution.

3. That alcohol-related automobile accidents were already in decline before the adoption of the legislation.

4. That for alcohol-related fatalities not associated with automobiles, raising the drinking age to 21 has had no discernible effect on fatalities associated with alcohol.

5. That safer cars, higher awareness by drivers of all ages, greater utilization of a “designated driver,” and more vigorous law enforcement are what had led to the decline of driving fatalities associated with alcohol.

There is another criticism of the National Minimum Age Act that has rarely been vocalized: it is incompatible with individual liberty and limited government — the things that Republicans in the Congress and the presidency at the time professed to believe.

First, it is not the federal government’s business to prevent any legal adult of any age from purchasing alcohol. If a drinking age of 21 prevents highway deaths of those who are 18–20, then the same argument could be made that a drinking age of 25 would prevent highway deaths of those who are 18–24. But why stop there? If reducing highway deaths is the priority, and if merely raising the drinking age reduces highway deaths, then it follows that the government should just ban alcohol altogether — something that few Americans would be willing to accept no matter how many highway deaths it would be claimed to prevent. And second, it is not the federal government’s business to dictate to the states. Under our constitutional system of federalism, it is actually the other way around.

Libertarians would go even further.

  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to seek ways to reduce highway­ alcohol-related fatalities.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to discourage anyone from drinking alcohol.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to set a minimum age to purchase, possess, or drink alcohol.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to license businesses to sell alcohol.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to have a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to give states highway funds.
  • It is not the proper role of the federal government to have a Department of Transportation.

In a free society, it is the role of businesses, parents, friends, family, religious organizations, temperance unions, social-welfare groups, medical professionals, and others to instruct the young on the potential dangers and safe use of alcohol; that is, anyone but the government.

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