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Why is 21 the legal drinking age?

On Behalf of | Nov 6, 2023 | DUI |

A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 2021 survey revealed that 13.4 million people aged 12 to 20 had consumed alcohol. The legal drinking age in the United States has been set at 21 for several decades, but have you ever wondered why this specific age?

The decision to set the drinking age at 21 has its roots in historical, societal and public health considerations.

History of drinking ages

The legal drinking age in the United States has not always been 21. Before the 1980s, states had varying drinking ages, with some allowing individuals as young as 18 to purchase and consume alcohol. This inconsistency led to concerns about the ease of access to alcohol, especially among young adults.

In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandated that all states set their minimum legal drinking age to 21. States that did not comply faced reductions in federal highway funds.

Highway safety

One of the primary motivations for the adoption of a uniform drinking age was to reduce alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities. Studies showed that raising the drinking age to 21 resulted in a significant decrease in drunk driving incidents among young adults, making the roads safer for everyone.

Brain development

Research has shown that the human brain continues to develop well into a person’s early twenties. The frontal lobes, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, are among the last areas to fully mature. Setting the legal drinking age at 21 takes into account the cognitive development that occurs during this period and aims to mitigate the risks associated with alcohol consumption among less-developed brains.

Delaying the age at which young people start consuming alcohol can reduce the likelihood of developing alcohol-related problems and dependencies later in life.

Public health and safety

Another critical factor in setting the drinking age at 21 is public health and safety. Studies have consistently shown that early alcohol consumption can lead to impaired judgment, increased risky behavior and alcohol-related health problems. A higher drinking age helps protect young individuals from these potential harms.

While debates about the drinking age continue, the decision to set it at 21 was a multifaceted approach. The goal was to address the challenges associated with alcohol consumption, particularly among young adults.