The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 18, 2012

Ask a Trooper: Youth and Alcohol – Minimum drinking age of 21 is in place for good reason.

By Jacalyn Sticha
Minnesota State Patrol


The  21st Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed prohibition - thus allowing states to regulate how and by whom alcohol could be consumed.  When this occurred, in 1933, most states had a 21 year old minimum drinking age.

By 1982 only 14 states retained minimum legal drinking age (MLDA ) of 21 years.  In the 1970s and 1980s the MLDA became a traffic safety problem as it became calculable that  youth’s traffic crashes increased when states lowered the drinking age. 

In 1984 Congress enacted the National Minimum Purchase Age Act which prohibited the purchase and possession of alcohol if under 21.  Simultaneously they put pressure on the states that did not raise the MLDA to 21; states that did not comply would lose a portion of their federal highway construction funding.   By 1988 all states had a 21 MLDA.


Even before the last states came on board it was becoming apparent that youth lives were being saved nationwide due to a higher drinking age; from 1975 through 1996 over 17,000 fewer youth deaths having the higher drinking age across the nation. 

Alcohol related crashes involving young drivers have also declined 63 percent since 1982. Taking alcohol out of youth’s lives more earnestly than ever before had spectacular side effects - reduced youth suicides, marijuana use, alcohol consumption and crime.

Two national studies showed the positives of a 21 MLDA;  both high school students and youth after turning 21 drank less if they were from a state with a MLDA of 21.  They also found a direct result from lower alcohol consumption was fewer traffic crashes. (O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991 and Voas, Tippets, and Fell, 1999 – FARS DATA)


Some people in the United States often cite, incorrectly, that European countries with lower drinking ages show fewer youth alcohol problems than the U.S.  The Minnesota Department of Health website shares information stating that U.S. 15 and 16 year olds drank less and binged less than 35 European Nations and that 75 percent of the European nations had a higher percentage of youth drinking to intoxication.

Many European countries have made changes during the last decade and for good reason. 

France saw a 50 percent increase in the number of 15-24 year olds hospitalized for excessive alcohol use between 2004 and 2007.  During this time, alcohol was the leading cause of death among the French.  In 2009, France raised the MLDA from 16 to 18 and banned open bars (for a single fee drink as much as wanted).  It is not a reach to expect these countries to make even more changes in the next decade showing a firmer grip on their youth’s consumption.




*Facts are from U.S. Department of Transportation, National High Traffic Administration-Underage Drinking Prevention Project; MN Department of Health and Education; MN Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety.