A Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) of 21 saves lives and protects health
Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) laws specify the legal age when an individual can purchase alcoholic beverages. The MLDA in the United States is 21 years. However, prior to the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the legal age when alcohol could be purchased varied from state to state.1
The age 21 MLDA saves lives and improves health.3
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- States that increased the legal drinking age to 21 saw a 16% median decline in motor vehicle crashes.6
- After all states adopted an age 21 MLDA, drinking during the previous month among persons aged 18 to 20 years declined from 59% in 1985 to 40% in 1991.7
- Drinking among people aged 21 to 25 also declined significantly when states adopted the age 21 MLDA, from 70% in 1985 to 56% in 1991.7
- There is also evidence that the age 21 MLDA protects drinkers from alcohol and other drug dependence, adverse birth outcomes, and suicide and homicide.4
Drinking by those under the age 21 is a public health problem.
- Excessive drinking contributes to more than 3,200 deaths among people below the age of 21 in the U.S. each year.10
- Underage drinking cost the U.S. economy $24 billion in 2010.11
- There were about 189,000 emergency department visits by people under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol in 2010.12
- More than 90% of the alcohol consumed by those under age 21 is consumed by binge drinkers (defined as 5 or more drinks per occasion for boys; 4 or more drinks per occasion for girls).13
Drinking by those below the age of 21 is also strongly linked with9,14,15:
- Death from alcohol poisoning.
- Unintentional injuries, such as car crashes, falls, burns, and drowning.
- Suicide and violence, such as fighting and sexual assault.
- Changes in brain development.
- School performance problems, such as higher absenteeism and poor or failing grades.
- Alcohol dependence later in life.
- Other risk behaviors such as smoking, drug misuse, and risky sexual behaviors.
Drinking by those below the age of 21 is strongly associated with alcohol-impaired driving.
The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey16 found that among high school students, during the past 30 days
- 6% drove after drinking alcohol.
- 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.
Rates of drinking and binge drinking among those under 21
The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System16 found that among high school students, 30% drank alcohol and 14% binge drank during the past 30 days.
In 2017, the Monitoring the Future Survey external iconreported that 8% of 8th graders and 30% of 12th graders drank alcohol during the past 30 days, and 4% of 8th graders and 14% of 12th graders binge drank during the past 2 weeks.17
In 2014, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the New York State Liquor Authority found that more than half (58%) of the licensed alcohol retailers in the City sold alcohol to underage decoys.19
Enforcing the age 21 MLDA
Communities can enhance the effectiveness of age 21 MLDA laws by actively enforcing them.
- A Community Guide review found that enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting alcohol sales to minors reduced the ability of youthful-looking decoys to purchase alcoholic beverages by a median of 42%.18
- Alcohol sales to minors are still a common problem in communities.