What Can You Do


A Report
from the
Inter-Association
Task Force
on Alcohol
and Other
Substance
Abuse Issues


Twenty-One is the "Drinking Age"
What Does That Mean?


One of the major challenges facing higher education is the lack of public consensus regarding the minimum drinking age in the United States. The facts are quite clear, most people believe that the law says that individuals who are not 21 should not drink. There are three other countries in this world that follow a 21 drinking age: Malaysia, South Korea, and Ukraine, but in fact, only 31 of the 50 states in the United States wholly prohibit such drinking. The other states have a patchwork of varied laws with exceptions for special circumstances such as drinking for religious or medical purposes, in private clubs, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian and so forth. But while most U.S. citizens believe the law of the land is a minimum drinking age of 21… most also don’t enforce it.

The law really has nothing to do with drinking, but deals instead with “purchase and possession” of beverage alcohol. Perhaps more to the point is that the major reason that the states enacted such laws was not a belief in the 21 minimum drinking age but that they face losing a certain percentage of federal monies that they would otherwise receive annually for highway construction and repair. In effect, the U.S. Congress was unwilling to alienate voters between 18 and 21, so they used fiscal leverage on state legislators to impose legislation on that vocal and active portion of the electorate. As a result, all states have some law in effect that talks about 21 as the minimum age for purchase and possession, which is far easier to enforce than a ban on drinking.

The lack of national consensus regarding the 21 age purchase and possession law is exemplified by the fact that only 31 states have passed laws prohibiting drinking and the long list of exceptions that currently exist in state law. On top of that, there seems to be a lack of desire to enforce the 21-year drinking age in many communities. The only time legislative intervention is effective is when it is supported by the majority of our citizens who feel it is a just law. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be a national consensus on the 21 drinking age.

This lack of consensus is reinforced by the fact that at the age of 18, a citizen in our country may vote, enter into contracts, marry without parental consent, serve in the Armed Forces, and be considered a fully functioning legal adult. But these same individuals are told that they cannot purchase or possess alcoholic beverages until they are 21. The justification for this inequity is the concern over the high incidence of impaired driving and fatalities in the 18–21 age group. Researchers will point to the fact that traffic fatalities are down in the targeted age group but that is also true in the other age groups during that same time period. Drinking by young people has also declined, but not as much as among the population at large. In fact, some of the states with the strictest laws regarding underage drinking have had the highest increases in that activity.

In conclusion, without national public consensus regarding the 21 drinking age, young people will continue to be sent mixed messages about alcohol con-sumption. Colleges and universities are in no better position than any other part of society to enforce a law that is not supported by the majority of citizens.

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Collegiate Alcohol Abuse: Recommendations and Guidelines