Prevents adolescents from gaining access to alcohol (citations)


There is a significant body of research that suggests early initiation to alcohol leads to long-term alcohol problems.1 Thus, one of the arguments for the 21 year-old drinking age is that it prevents alcohol from reaching younger populations by making it illegal to purchase, possess, and consume. High school students, in particular, are better protected by the 21 year-old drinking age because their 18 year old friends cannot buy and furnish alcohol to them.2

However . . .

  • Perhaps this would be true if Legal Age 21 actually kept alcohol out of the hands of young teens. It doesn’t—over the past two decades, the law has failed at actually preventing young people from drinking. In fact the average age of first drink has actually decreased since Legal Age 21 was implemented and has held steady around 14 years of age.3 Under Legal Age 21 fewer young people are drinking, but those who choose to drinking are drinking more and are drinking recklessly.4 This style of excessive, dangerous consumption has created a national epidemic of what is commonly called binge drinking, putting young people and innocent citizens at greater risk of alcohol poisoning, assault, sexual abuse, vandalism, and alcohol-related traffic accidents.4
  • It is unlikely that a lower drinking age would increase rates of life long alcohol abuse. Although a significant body of literature suggests that an early onset of alcohol use is correlated with alcohol abuse later in life,5 the same literature also indicates no significant difference in rates of alcohol abuse between those who start drinking at 18, 19, 20 or 21.6 Those who begin to drink in early adolescence are more likely to end up with alcohol use problems later in life. In the majority of countries where the drinking age is 18 or lower, and often not enforced, drinking at young ages is not highly predictive of alcohol abuse later in life.7 It appears that the context in which one first consumes alcohol is as important, if not more important, as the age of initial consumption.8



1 Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. (1998). Age at onset of drug use and its association with DSM-IV drug abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 10, 163-173; Hingson, R., Heeren, T., Levenson, S., Jamanka, A. & Voas, R. (2001). Age of drinking onset, driving after drinking, and involvement in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, DOT HS 809 188. Retrieved on May 1, 2006, from:


2 Johnston, L.D., O'Malley, P.M., Bachman, J.G. & Schulenberg, J.E. (December 21, 2006). Decline in daily smoking by younger teens has ended. University of Michigan News and Information Services: Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved January 15, 2007 from:


3 ibid.


4 Wechsler, H., Lee, J.E., Kuo, M., Seibring, M., Nelson, T.F. & Lee, H. (2002). Trends in college binge drinking during a period of increased prevention efforts: Findings from 4 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study surveys 1993-2001. Journal of American College Health, 50(5), 203-217.


5 Grant, B.F., and Dawson, D.A. (1998). Age at onset of drug use and its association with DSM-IV drug abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 10, 163-173.


6 Chassin, L., Pitts, S.C., & Prost, J. (2002). Binge drinking trajectories from adolescence to emerging adulthood in a high-risk sample: Predictors and substance abuse outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(1), 67-78. DeWit, D.J. Adlaf, E.M., Offord, D.R. & Ogborne, A.C. (2000). Age at first alcohol use: A risk factor for the development of alcohol disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 745-750.


7 Babor, T., Caetano, R., Casswell, S., Edwards, G., Giesbrecht, N., Graham, K., Grube, J., Gruenewald, P., Hill, L., Holder, H., Homel, R., Osterberg, E., Rehm, J., Room, R., and Rossow, I. (2003). Alcohol: no ordinary commodity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


8 Bellis, M.A., Hughes, K., Morleo, M., Tocque, D., Huges, S., Allen, T., Harrison, D., & Fe-Rodriguez, E. (2007). Predictors of risky alcohol consumption in schoolchildren and their implications for preventing alcohol-related harm. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2(15).