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It’s been nearly 30 years since Americans under 21 could legally purchase alcohol in the U.S. The Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 required states to raise their legal drinking age to 21 or face cuts to their federal highway funding. Wyoming, the last holdout, raised its legal drinking age in 1988, and 21 has been the magic number around the country ever since.

After so many years, the debate over the legal age has long been considered largely settled in official circles, but new legislation around the country is challenging that assumption. Last year, Minnesota considered a proposal to lower the legal drinking age. While last year’s proposal failed to get traction, it will be reassessed during the 2016 legislative session, and several other states are following Minnesota’s lead this year with similar measures.

Proposals to change the legal drinking age

In February, New Jersey State Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll introduced a bill to make 18 the legal drinking age in that state, arguing that if young adults are old enough to serve in the military they should be old enough to buy alcohol legally. And his proposal seems to have some support from several of Carroll’s fellow legislators, who have suggested they would consider the change if only it didn’t impact federal transportation money.

In New Hampshire, State Representative Max Abramson has introduced a bill that would allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drink beer and wine as long as they are with someone over 21. Titled the “Adult Supervision Law,” the bill mitigates the change by making intoxication (defined as a BAC of 0.05 of higher) illegal for 18- to 20-year-olds, and also prohibiting that group from consuming hard liquor.

And on the other side of the country, a group is currently working to get an initiative to lower the drinking age on California’s ballot for the November election. Supporters have until April 26 to collect the 365,880 signatures needed to put the measure up for a public vote. According to an analysis of the initiative, lowering the drinking age could cost California $200 million in federal highway funding each year and could lead to an increase in drunk driving. However, the analysis also concluded that the change could generate more tax revenue from alcohol sales and might decrease underage-drinking offenses.

Arguments for and against

Supporters of these measures argue that drinking issues are much less common in parts of the world with lower drinking ages, and suggest that the temptation of forbidden fruit (or hops) might actually be contributing to the nation’s problems with binge drinking and drunk driving. But critics argue that view is an overly simplistic take on the causes of alcohol misuse among young Americans, and point to research that shows raising the drinking age to 21 has saved approximately 900 lives per year.

What do you think of the legislative trend to lower the drinking age?

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has over 15 years of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined AMS in 2013 and is currently a Senior Manager of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to AMS, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.

4 Comments

  1. Having lived in Colorado when those 18 to 21 could drink 3.2% alcohol only, there was a school of thought that allowing younger drinkers to purchase and then consume 3.2 alcohol reduced the overall level of intoxication and dangers related to binge drinking. You have to consume a higher volume of liquid than, say, a shot of hard liquor, which in theory slowed teens from reaching those dangerous levels of intoxication. I’d be curious to know if binge drinking has increased in that age group since those laws went into effect. Although binge drinking is generally defined as just a number of drinks in a period of time, versus a level of intoxication reached in a period of time. But a 3.2 beer does not equal a beer today in terms of alcohol content.

  2. If the recurring argument for lowering the drinking age is “if young adults are old enough to serve in the military they should be old enough to buy alcohol legally”, why don’t we raise the age of enlistment to 21?

  3. The United States is one of only five nations on Earth that has a drinking age of 21, all the Nations of Europe and Latin America and Canada, Australia and New Zealand have a minimum drinking age of 18/19, 18 year olds in the United States should be able to purchase wine and beer and bars and restaraunts.

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