State Policies

Under current policy, any state that chooses to set its drinking age under 21 must forfeit 10% of its annual federal highway appropriation. Since this amounts to tens of millions of dollars in most states, state level changes in drinking age policy are effectively limited until Congress opts to issue a waiver to states interested in revising their underage drinking policies.

In early 2006, a bi-partisan sponsored bill was presented in the Vermont legislature. It was a bill that sought a creative, new approach to problems associated with the 21 year-old drinking age by licensing young adult drinkers and by creating significant incentives and penalties, in the form of eligibility for the license, to reduce underage drinking. Yet this bill went nowhere, despite expressions of support across a wide political spectrum. The reason: unless and until the federal government grants a waiver of current law, Vermont will not put at risk its receipt of federal highway funds. In the fiscal year 2005, the amount in question was approximately $17 million.

So what can state legislatures do in the meantime?

State exceptions

In actuality, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act allows for several different exceptions to Legal Age 21. States are allowed to legislate any of the following exceptions to the law prohibiting purchase, possession and consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21:

· For an established religious purpose
· When accompanied by a parent, guardian, or spouse who is 21 years or older.
· For medical purposes when prescribed by a physician
· In private clubs or establishments

A majority of states take advantage of these allowances by legislating exceptions to possession or consumption of alcohol by “minors” under 21, and to the furnishing of alcohol by legal-aged individuals. For example, 30 states currently allow for parents to provide their children with alcohol in the privacy of their own homes. But in the remaining 20, parents are barred from providing their children with alcohol until the child’s 21st birthday. Those who adhere to strict rules at home in keeping with state laws are, in fact, prevented from introducing young adults to alcohol in a controlled home environment.  This often relegates initial drinking experiences to settings where there is little or no supervision or guidance and a great deal of peer pressure to experiment. Parents across the country should be allowed and encouraged to provide their own children (and not their children’s friends) with alcohol in the context of teaching and modeling responsible decisions about alcohol and its use.

Click here to learn more about the policies in your own state.