Ask a Trooper: Why Don't We Let Youth Drink at Age 18?

Youth and Alcohol—Minimum drinking age of 21 is in place for good reason. The Minnesota State Patrol responds to this question.

Question: Why don’t we just let our youth drink at age 18 like we used to?  They would have more experience and guidance by adults if we did.


The  21st Amendment to the United States Constitution repealed prohibition - thus allowing states to regulate how and by whom alcohol could be consumed.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.


The behavior of 18 year olds directly affects the behavior of 15-17 year olds, reducing drinking behavior for the prior also reduces it for the latter. 

  • A drinking age of 18 is associated with adverse outcomes among births to young mothers.
  • There is potential harm alcohol may have on the developing brain, which is maturing well into the 20s.
  • When teens drink they tend to drink heavily
  • The later a youth is introduced to alcohol the less likely they are to have problems surrounding drinking;  DWIs, school dropout rates, dependency, traffic crashes and violent crimes.  Waiting until 21 to consume alcohol gives them the best odds.  
  • Arguing that an 18 year old can join the service and fight for our nation so they should be able to drink legally means permitting doing something harmful to their emotional and physical wellbeing. Drinking should never be considered a reward or right of passage.

 *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.

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yomammy December 28, 2012 at 01:40 PM
since we cant post on the other "ask a trooper" thread.... Can you PLEASE ticket these IDIOTS that are texting and driving. I swear every frigging day driving on 95 I almost get hit at least once...and as I see this car crossing the line right at me, they are ALWAYS looking down (obviously texting) or yapping on the phone and looking around/spacing out. They are worse than drunk drivers.
Patch Comment December 30, 2012 at 11:04 AM
It is legal to allow your children under the age of 21 consume alcohol at your residence and with the parents permission. These two conditions are very specific. Minnesota State Law 340A.503 (2).
Liberaltarian January 02, 2013 at 04:10 AM
Why don't we raise the drinking age to 24? Our youth would then have even better odds of avoiding the emotional and physical damage you describe. Besides, what 23 year-olds do strongly influences what 21 year-olds do. This in turn influences the 18 year-olds, and as you said, ultimately the 15 to 17 year-olds. Also, your article confuses causation with correlation. Since 1982 the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths has declined nearly as much for those over age 21 as for those under. Overall drug use by people under age 21 has also fallen considerably since 1982. So maybe increasing the drinking age had much less to do with decreased alcohol-related deaths than you might think. Problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption or driving while intoxicated have very little to do with the drinking age. The key, as Rick said, is upbringing and parental guidance. Also important are the cultural standards. When I was a kid, the hippest people on TV were always drinking and smoking. Being drunk was funny - not disgusting. The legality of something has a lot less influence on what people actually do than what lawmakers or law enforcers might think. We're better off focusing on getting young people to make good decisions out of a sense of right and wrong - and get away from making/enforcing laws that are so routinely violated by so many people.
Kathy Cooper January 02, 2013 at 12:20 PM
It is legal only for your OWN children, not their friends.
Sean Hayford Oleary January 02, 2013 at 07:11 PM
This question seems like a bizarre one for a state trooper. Obviously, Sgt. Sticha is obligated to enforce the law, no matter how ridiculous it is. Nevertheless.. This article incorrectly asserts that all states have a minimum legal drinking age of 21. Most states, including Minnesota, permit those under 21 under certain circumstances. (In MN, with a parent's permission and in their residence.) Secondly, in her comparisons to Europe, she misses one significant difference: DWI laws. In Norway, the maximum legal BAC is 0.02 -- one quarter of Minnesota's legal limit. The result is an infrastructure and a social environment that supports safe transportation while drunk (designated drivers, more cabs, more night buses). Our alcohol limit is so high that we get the impression that only those who really "overdid" it, who really "have a problem" dare to leave their car somewhere and take a cab home. The high bar for what qualifies as drunk drivers socially pressures more drunk drivers onto the road. As for alcohol purchase and consumption limits, Norway's (relatively prudish) laws provide a good template: 20 under 20 (up to 20% alcohol content from ages 18-20), with the ability to buy spirits after age 20. This provides an earlier period of introduction to beers and wines.


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