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Legal Drinking Age: History and Evolution

By
Matthew Krimmel
Table of Contents
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The current legal drinking age of 21 in the United States is a source of disagreement among some Americans. It's higher than the age of majority in many states (18) and the drinking age of most other nations. However, the history of the drinking age in America has told a much different story.

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What Is the Legal Drinking Age?

The legal drinking age is the minimum age for purchasing or drinking alcoholic beverages. The minimum age for legally consuming alcohol can differ from the minimum age for purchase in some countries.

Most laws apply only to consuming alcohol in public places and not drinking in private residences. Some countries also have minimum age requirements for certain drinks, such as distilled liquor.

Legal Drinking Age History

The alcohol laws in the United States for the minimum age of alcohol consumption have changed over time.

The Colonial Era and Post-Revolution

During the colonial era under British rule, there was no drinking age. It wasn't uncommon to see young teenagers drinking in taverns.

After the American Revolution, religious sentiments, and a growing knowledge of the medical dangers of alcohol, spurred changes in the national laws.

The First State Minimum Drinking Age Law

Wisconsin was the first American state to pass a minimum drinking age in 1839. It prevented the sale of wine or liquor to anyone under 18 without parental consent.

The temperance movement gained strength in the 1880s when several additional states passed minimum drinking age laws.

Post-Prohibition and Frequent Changes

Since Prohibition ended in 1933, there have been frequent changes in the minimum drinking age by state. After the 21st Amendment passed in December 1933, most set their legal minimum drinking age at 21.

This limit remained consistent until the late 1960s and 1970s. During this time, numerous states lowered the minimum drinking age to 18.

In 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18.

At this time, many states changed their minimum voting age to match the drinking age.

In the late 1970s, some states raised their minimum drinking age to battle the occurrence of drunk-driving fatalities.

The National Minimum Age Drinking Act

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Age Drinking Act. It required states to raise their minimum age for purchasing and possessing alcoholic beverages to 21.

Non-compliant states would lose 10% of their federal highway funding. The deadline was October 1986, and most states followed the order.

All fifty states had raised their minimum drinking age to 21 by the summer of 1988. South Dakota and Wyoming were the last states to comply with the change.

Since then, a few states have proposed legislation to lower the minimum drinking age to 18 but with little traction.

Worldwide Drinking Age Comparison

The minimum average drinking age varies throughout the rest of the world. It ranges from 13 in Burkina Faso to a complete ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol in Brunei.

Let's take a look at some countries and regions and see how their laws differ.

Europe

In most European countries, the minimum drinking age stands at 18, while a few countries even permit legal consumption at age 16.

France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Greece all have a minimum drinking age of 18.

In Lithuania, it's illegal to sell, serve, or supply alcoholic beverages to anyone under 20.

What Is the Legal Drinking Age in Germany?

Germany is one of the most interesting nations when it comes to the minimum drinking age. It has one of the lowest minimum drinking ages globally, allowing teenagers at 14 to drink alcohol when accompanied by an adult.

Otherwise, you must be 16 to buy beer and wine and 18 to purchase liquor in Germany, similar to Austria, Denmark, and England.

Asia

In Asia, Singapore has the strictest drinking laws. The sale and consumption of alcohol is banned from 10:30 P.M. until 7:00 A.M.

However, in many other Asian nations, alcohol laws are either non-existent or very relaxed. Cambodia, Macau, and Vietnam don't have a minimum age for purchasing or drinking alcohol.

In other parts of Asia, the minimum drinking age varies. Malaysia (16), China (18), South Korea (19), Japan (20), and Thailand (20) are notable countries that have different minimum drinking ages.

What Countries Have the Lowest Drinking Age?

  1. Burkina Faso, a country in Africa with a population of 20.8 million, has an underdeveloped policy system that affects its minimum drinking age. Legally, children at age 13 can purchase alcoholic beverages.
  2. The Central African Republic permits people aged 15 to purchase alcohol. Popular choices are local beer, palm wine, and banana wine.
  3. Barbados, an island in the Caribbean with about 287,000 residents, doesn't technically have a drinking age. However, you must be 16 to purchase it legally.
  4. Panama, home to the canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, allows alcohol purchases for anyone aged 16 or over.
  5. Luxembourg, a tiny European country bordering Germany, Belgium, and France, has a drinking age of 16.
  6. The British Virgin Islands, made up of about 60 tropical islands in the Caribbean, permits the sale of alcohol to people aged 16.
  7. Cuba, located at the convergence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, requires people to be 16 to purchase alcohol.

What Is the Minimum Drinking Age in Canada?

In Canada, there's no federal law for a minimum drinking age. Each province and territory can decide its own legal drinking age.

The minimum drinking age in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec is 18. Canada's remaining provinces and territories permit legal alcohol purchases at age 19.

What Is the Minimum Drinking Age in Mexico?

The minimum drinking age in Mexico is 18, and alcohol is readily available around the clock in many places.

Mexico earns millions of dollars from its tourism industry. If travel there for vacation with your family, keep in mind their drinking age and penalties that may result from breaking the law.

Usually, when you check into your hotel, an all-inclusive plan means that you'll receive a wristband. Use it to prove you're above the legal age, so you can order a drink easily and quickly.

Will the Minimum Drinking Age Change?

In the United States, there have been some proposals for changing the minimum legal drinking age. They haven't gone far with lawmakers, making it unlikely that the minimum drinking age will change in the near future.

Evidence

Health experts cite evidence that the age of 21 is necessary for protecting young adults from alcohol dependence. States that increased the minimum drinking age to 21 saw a decrease in automobile accidents.

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Follow the Drinking Laws

It's important to make sure your restaurant or bar follows the drinking laws. It can help you to avoid any penalties or fines and possibly prevent someone who's not old enough to drink from making a bad choice. After all, some of the best things in life are worth waiting for.

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