Legal Drinking Age

Many countries set a minimum age at which drinking and purchasing alcoholic beverages is legal. These ages varies from one country to another and sometimes within a country. The legal drinking age may also vary for different types of alcoholic beverages. The drinking age can be different from the age at which a person is permitted to buy alcohol, or to drink alcohol in a public place.

In some countries people are allowed to consume alcohol in private, such as their own homes, at an earlier age from when they can drink in public. Many countries focus their legislation only on the legal age when a person can buy alcohol and do not specify a minimum age for consumption. The United Kingdom is the only country that legislates a minimum consumption age in the home, where children as young as five years old can consume alcohol with parental consent.

In seven countries, drinking and purchasing alcohol is illegal: Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Iran and Pakistan. In Pakistan foreigners aged 21 and above are allowed to consume and purchase alcoholic beverages. In Iran, religious minorities may purchase small amounts of alcohol from shops owned by the same religious minority. In Gabon, Gambia and Sudan, alcohol consumption is illegal only for Muslims.

In many countries there is no legislation specifying any drinking age. These include: Albania, Argentina, Bulgaria, China, Comoros, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Macau, Malaysia, Montenegro, Morocco, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Russia, the Solomon Islands, Swaziland, Togo, Uruguay and Vietnam. In some of these countries, laws concern only the minimum age from which people are allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages.

In some countries the drinking age depends on special circumstances. For example, in the Netherlands, minimum drinking age depends on the type of alcohol - beer and wine may be consumed at age 18; spirits at age 20. While drafting the legal drinking age bill, some officials in the country opposed the different ages depending on type of alcohol. The opponents said that it would be difficult to enforce such law due to the lack of effective systems to verify age. The Netherlands, like many countries in Europe, is against mandatory proof of identification cards as many citizens feel it is an invasion of privacy.

In the bulk of the countries there are no special exceptions. Among them, 18 countries have set the minimum drinking age at 18. Six have a national minimum drinking age of 21: Chile, Egypt, Honduras, Russia, Samoa and the United States. Two have a minimum drinking age of 16 (Italy and Malta); and one country (Japan) has a minimum drinking age of 20. In Canada, where minimum drinking age laws are legislated by each province, three provinces set the consumption age at 18, the others at 19.

In the countries where the minimum drinking age is set at 21, especially in the United States, there are discussions whether this age should be lowered. According to the American Medical Association, evidence shows that lower drinking age results in more traffic injuries and deaths among youths. The organization says that a higher minimum legal drinking age results in fewer alcohol-related problems among youths, and the 21-year-old requirement age saves the lives of more than 1,000 youths in the United States each year.

Statistics of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (NHSTA) show that alcohol-related traffic deaths of people under 21 dropped by 43 percent between 1987 and 1996 compared to a 28 percent drop in the general population.

Other studies indicate that the legal drinking age should be 18 or 19. According to Ruth C. Engs, professor in health sciences at Indiana University says that any decrease in driving problems is the result of many factors and not just a rise in purchase age or the decreased consumption. Engs' research showed that although the legal purchase age is 21 years of age, a majority of younger college students drink alcohol in an irresponsible manner. The reason is that alcohol consumption below the legal age is seen as a rebellion against authority and a symbol of adulthood.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Does the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Save Lives?
Miron, Jeffrey A.; Tetelbaum, Elina.
Economic Inquiry, Vol. 47, No. 2, April 2009
Underage Drinking and the Drinking Age
Main, Carla T.
Policy Review, No. 155, June-July 2009
Seeking a Drinking Age Debate: Perspectives from an Amethyst Initiative Signatory about Moving the Dialogue Forward
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth.
University Business, Vol. 11, No. 10, October 2008
Did the Federal Drinking Age Law Save Lives? in This Case, Coercive Federalism Did Not Improve Public Welfare
Miron, Jeffrey A.; Tetelbaum, Elina.
Regulation, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2009
Starting a Dialogue: Against the Odds, a Former College President Takes Aim at the 21 Drinking Age
McAlarney, Brion P.
Addiction Professional, Vol. 5, No. 5, September-October 2007
The Effect of Enforcement on Merchant Compliance with the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law
Scribner, Richard; Cohen, Deborah.
Journal of Drug Issues, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall 2001
A Note on the Effect of Minimum Drinking Age Laws on Youth Alcohol Consumption
Kaestner, Robert.
Contemporary Economic Policy, Vol. 18, No. 3, July 2000
Indirect Effects of Lowering the Drinking Age on New Zealand Students' Alcohol-Related Behaviours and Attitudes
Brownfield, Kylie; Fernando, Kumari; Halberstadt, Jamin.
New Zealand Journal of Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 1, June 2003
Teen Legal Rights
Kathleen A. Hempelman.
Greenwood Press, 2000 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Alcohol and Drugs: The Legal Drinking Age"
Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Youth
Kathleen Uradnik.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 12 "Uniform Drinking Age Act (1984) and Federal Zero Tolerance Law (1995)"
The Essential Handbook of Treatment and Prevention of Alcohol Problems
Nick Heather; Tim Stockwell.
John Wiley & Sons, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 13 "Controls on the Physical Availability of Alcohol"
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