The drinking age was set at 21-years-old by the federal government 30 years ago with the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. President Ronald Reagan signed the federal law on July 17, 1984. Previous to this federal law being passed, the legal age for drinking alcohol was determined by each state.
The United States has an interesting history of passing laws about the legal drinking age. After prohibition in the United States, most states passed laws setting their drinking age at 21, but some states set the age lower. In the 1960s, the legal drinking age was set to 18-years-old in most states. The reason for lowering the age to 18 was because many young men were being drafted to the Vietnam War. Many people objected to drafting young men into the army who could not even drink alcohol legally. The draft age was 18-years-old, for those who did not have a deferment, and these young men were being sent off to war to possibly be killed, but they were not able to purchase a drink.
Setting the legal drinking age at 18, however, began to cause problems when the rate of alcohol-related car accidents increased dramatically. During this time, two-thirds of the car accidents involving people aged 16 to 20 had alcohol involvement. In the 1970s, the National Institutes of Health called alcohol-related accidents a crisis, and many states began to revisit their laws on legal drinking ages.
This resulted in a call for a national legal drinking age, and the Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in July of 1984. This law mandated that all states increase the drinking age to 21. According to the National Institutes of Health, accidents involving drunk drivers dropped by 50 percent. The percentage of fatalities related to alcohol-related accidents among the 16 to 20-year-olds dropped dramatically to around 37 percent.
People still wonder, however, if the current legal age for drinking alcohol is appropriate. One main concern is the college-age drinking crowd. Even though many college kids are under age, they still drink. When college-age drinking occurs, it has been estimated that more than 90 percent of the consumption is through binge drinking. It is possible that the excessive binge drinking may be related to the illegality of alcohol. If young people were able to purchase alcoholic drinks legally in bars or lounges, they may not resort to attending drinking parties and may not feel the added excitement of doing something illicit.
The age of consent, or age to be legally held responsible for one’s actions, varies widely for young people in the United States. The legal age for drinking is 21, while the age one can vote in elections is 18. The age of consent for having sex varies in different states, but it is usually under 18. Moreover, young people can be sentenced as an adult for a crime even if under the age of 12-years-old. There is no consensus on the age at which a child becomes an adult and has the cognitive means to make adult decisions. When the federal government set the drinking age at 21-years-old 30 years ago, problems with alcohol and driving were lessened, but work still needs to be done to deter young adults from drinking and doing dangerous things.
By Margaret Lutze