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Drinking Age: Facts and Resources

There’s a lot of misinformation about the drinking age and it can be difficult to know what the facts are. For this reason, we’ve put together a list of talking points and references that you can use whether you are talking to your friends and family or your local legislator. We’ve also summarized some of the research that supports a lower drinking age or those who want a more in-depth analysis. And be sure to check out our Top Ten Reasons to Challenge the Drinking Age as well!

Drinking is less dangerous than other activities that you can do at 18.

  • At 18, you can join the military, get married and raise a family, purchase a firearm, and serve on a jury—all of which require a significant amount of risk or responsibility. Strangely, though, alcohol is held to a different standard. Drinking alcohol is a serious activity, not to be engaged in without thought, but requiring a higher age to drink legally than activities that are either more dangerous or have a bigger impact on other people’s lives doesn’t make any sense.
  • Tobacco is usually legal at 18, though many states have moved to raise it to 21, the same as the drinking age. However, smoking tobacco is still much more dangerous. Nicotine is arguably the most addictive drug people use. According to the CDC, smoking kills 1.3% of the smoking population each year. This makes tobacco over 20 times as deadly as alcohol, which only kills about 0.063% of the drinking population a year according to the CDC.
  • Having sex requires far more physical and emotional maturity than drinking alcohol. Although the risks of sex do not primarily lie in the deaths it causes, sex does kill 36,000 people a year through STDs (and another 400 through pregnancy complications).
  • Military service is more dangerous than drinking. Military service kills around  0.1% of the active duty population per year. This makes military service about 1.5 times as deadly as alcohol. And this is not even during a draft or a major war. During the Vietnam Era, the military death rate was 0.64%10 times as deadly as alcohol (By the way, 61% of Vietnam deaths were soldiers younger than 21).
  • Your first sip of alcohol cannot possibly kill you, and is unlikely even to get you drunk. However, your first tour of duty in the military, your first week of basic training, or even your first time firing a gun, can kill you.
  • It is possible to stop drinking whenever you want to. This comes in very useful when the situation begins to feel unsafe. However, it is not possible to stop serving in the military or stop being a parent whenever you want to, even if you feel you can’t handle the risk or the responsibility. Alcohol does not have this problem. We would never put someone in a situation where they had to keep drinking, and could not stop even when people’s lives were in danger.

We didn’t need to raise the drinking age in order to reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths.

  • The law did not prevent traffic deaths, it only delayed them. In an unrefuted study, Peter Asch and David Levy showed that raising the drinking age merely transferred drunk driving deaths from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. They argued that the problem with saying that the drinking age has saved lives is that it looks only at deaths for people aged 18-20. Raising the drinking age may have reduced deaths among people 18-20 but resulted in more deaths among people 21-24. This suggests that the real risk factor for drinking and driving is being an inexperienced drinker, regardless of age. If 18-year-olds have just started drinking, a disproportionate number will die from drunk driving. The same thing is true of 21-year-olds. The researchers wrote, “…it seems clear that the means by which we now make alcoholic beverages available to the young—proscribing consumption up to an arbitrarily specified age, and allowing it from that moment on—is a policy of little use in promoting highway safety.”
  • Drunk driving was decreasing among all age groups before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was fully implemented. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has shown that between 1982 and 1987 there was a reduction in the number of accidents related to intoxicated drivers. The number of alcohol-related accidents was already dropping before the age restriction laws were in place.
  • Drunk driving decreased in places with that didn’t increase the drinking age.  According to the US Department of Transportation, Canada experienced almost the exact same reduction as the United States during the 1980s, without raising their drinking ages (18-19). This reduction in drunk driving also happened in states that have had a drinking age of 21 since the end of Prohibition. Raising the drinking age alone didn’t make a difference.
  • The maximum Blood Alcohol Content level was lowered for everyone. Beginning in the 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s, states began lowering their legal maximum blood alcohol content for drivers, usually to 0.08%. Before this, the standard legal BAC was 0.1%, or even 0.15%. This new policy decreased the acceptable level of drunkenness for drivers, serving as a new deterrent for drunk driving among all age groups.
  • Drunk driving became less socially acceptable. Organizations such as MADD caused a nationwide change in public opinion. Whereas previously, society had accepted drunk driving as a part of life, in the 1980s, people began to vilify drunk drivers. This could easily have deterred many people—including many young people—from drunk driving.
  • It was a different generation. The people in their late teens and early 20s in the 1980s were the last members of the Baby Boom generation, and the earliest members of Generation X. The decrease in drunk driving was one of the many profound cultural changes that marked the transition from one generation to the next. These changes were already taking place before the drinking age was raised.

Other groups of people have a higher risk for alcohol problems, but their use is not restricted.

  • Alcohol has many other risk groups that are not prohibited from drinking, including people with a history of alcoholism, pregnant women, and people previously convicted of alcohol-related crimes such as drunk driving, child abuse, and sexual assault. And yet aside from people under 21, all risk groups are allowed to drink. For example, let’s look at male drinkers.
  • Men are a far more serious risk group than people under 21. They are 3 times as likely as women to die from alcohol, engage in drunk driving, reckless driving and commit seat belt violations. They are also twice as likely to be admitted to substance abuse treatment programs.
  • Banning men from drinking could save lives. If the drinking age is supposed to save 900 lives a year, then by this same logic a law against men drinking would save far more lives. Like the drinking age, such a law would be hard to enforce. But if the government put the same amount of effort into enforcing restrictions on men’s drinking as it does into enforcing the drinking age, it would have a similar effect.
  • The following chart shows the life-saving potential of a restriction on men’s drinking, if it had the same success rate people attribute to the restriction on underage drinking. Even if this policy had the same low success rate as the drinking age, it could save over 2 times as many lives on roads alone.
Underage DUI Male DUI
Hypothetical deaths per year without the restriction 2,900 6,700
Actual deaths per year 2,000 6,700
Hypothetical % death reduction due to restriction 31% 31%
Hypothetical lives saved per year by restriction 900 2,077

Numbers without a source are obtained by calculation.

  • This is true even if we take different population sizes into account. Men make up about 50% of the population, whereas underage people make up about 25% of the population. This means that with a basic correction for population size, a law targeting men’s drinking would still save just as many lives per capita as our current law targeting underage drinking.

Countries with lower drinking ages have fewer alcohol-related problems.

  • No other country has a higher drinking age. Other than the US, the only countries with a national minimum drinking age of 21 are Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Sri Lanka, and Tonga. It is unusual for a country that prides itself on freedom and personal responsibility to be such an outlier.
  • Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have nearly a mirror image history when it comes to alcohol. These countries also went through a Prohibition period and later set their drinking age at 21, which was the age of majority at the time. In the 1970s, like the United States, these countries lowered their drinking age as the age of majority was lowered to 18. These countries also have very similar stances on public health and safety, especially due to their high dependency on automobiles just like the United States, but never raised their drinking ages to 21. How can these countries, with their high standard of public safety and well-being, be able to consistently hold a drinking age of 18 or 19, and the United States cannot?
  • Legal status of alcohol does not determine rates of liver cirrhosis deaths. Countries with more severe alcohol prohibition than the US have higher rates of death from liver cirrhosis—one of the main long-term consequences of alcohol use—than we do. These countries include Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. Meanwhile, many countries across the world with easier access to alcohol than the US, such as Spain, Australia, Colombia, Japan, and Sweden, have lower rates of liver cirrhosis than we do.
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