A preliminary question concerns designation of the minimum age. Some experts in the field have suggested that the United States would be better off by lowering it (Hanson, 1990). A key argument made in favor of lowering the minimum age is that although the legal purchase age is 21, a majority of young people under this age consume alcohol anyway. Thus, the current age is seen as forcing young people to flout the law, thus undermining its legal authority and credibility. Furthermore, according to this perspective, the current age might actually encourage abusive drinking by young people by making alcohol use a rite of passage to adulthood or a symbol of rebellion and by forcing it to occur in uncontrolled and risky environments.
European countries are frequently held up as examples of societies in which young people can drink at an early age and thus learn to consume alcohol responsibly within a controlled and safe environment (e.g., the family). The facts, however, do not support this argument. Research clearly shows that most European countries not only have higher levels of consumption (an expected consequence of the lower drinking age), but also higher levels of problematic drinking (e.g., intoxication) among youth (Grube, 2001). Analyses of data from a 1999 survey of 15-year-old European school children (Hibell et al., 2000) and the 1999 Monitoring the Future U.S. survey of tenth graders (Johnston et al., 2002) show that U.S. students are less likely than young people from most European countries to report alcohol use in the past 30 days; see Figure 9-1. Similarly, U.S. adolescents are less likely than those from a majority of European countries to report becoming intoxicated in the past year; see Figure 9-2. In several countries—the United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, and Denmark—the proportion of teenagers reporting drinking heavily on at least three occasions in the last month is substantially greater than the proportion of U.S. teenagers who report drinking that much on at least one occasion during the past two weeks (Room, 2004). In short, there is no evidence that the lower drinking ages in Europe are protective. Finally, and most importantly as noted above, raising the minimum drinking age in the United States significantly decreased self-reported drinking, fatal traffic crashes, alcohol-related crashes, and arrests for DUI among young people (Klepp et al., 1996; O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991; Saffer and Grossman, 1987; Wagenaar, 1981, 1986; Wagenaar and Maybee, 1986; Yu et al., 1997).2 The 21-year-old minimum drinking age may also moderate drinking beyond adolescence (O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991).
Although every state now sets the legal age at 21, state laws vary greatly in the scope of the restrictions relating to underage purchase, pos-