US alcohol laws, why so harsh? (legal drinking age)

I was browsing this thread when it got me thinking:

why are US alcohol laws so harsh when compared to the UK, Europe, or many (most) other western countries?
I am talking both in terms of the legal drinking age being so high (21 compared with 18 or lower in the UK/Europe) and the very strict peanalties that people can face.

Is there any actual reason for this, and (possibly IMHO) is it likely that this would change given time?

I remember drinking at 18 in some states in the past. I believe the minimum age of 21 was introduced by the federal Govt, which threatened to refuse highway-biulding funds if states dodn’t comply (like they did with the speed limite, IIRC).

On top of that, the US has a more moralistic culture in many ways than much of W Europe - attitudes towards nudity, the death penalty, and harsh drugs laws, harsh sentencing of criminals, high incarceration rates, etc, come to mind. Alcohol sale was actually illegal for a while during Prohibition, and some places are still dry.

But some Northern European countries have hang ups, too. The UK throughout the 20C had some strange alcohol laws, and US-style hang ups about sex education and things. And Sweden (I think) still rations alcohol.

Nope, Sweden does not ration alcohol. Alcohol was rationed between 1919 and 1955.

All alcohol (except for low alcohol content beer and cider) is however sold in special stores, owned by Systembolaget.

Systembolaget is a state owned monopoly.

The USA does have a strange history with alcohol. Prohibition of sale of alcohol during the 1920’s resulted in a huge organized crime spree bootlegging the goods into the country. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. We did drop the age limit to 18 or 19 in many states during the 1960’s/70’s. My home state, Minnesota, allowed sales to 18 years olds for awhile and then increased that to age 19. Later, the Federal Gov’t said all states must change to 21 years for purchase and they would withhold highway construction money for states that did not. So 21 years old now to buy alcohol in the USA. Need to buy a handgun or assault firearm? Must be age 18 in Minnesota. 'Nuff said.

This country has such a high dependency on automobile use (shitty public transport). Couple that with immature teenage drivers (who can barely function sober) and that led to raising the legal drinking age to 21.

In my state (New York) it actually hopped from 18 to 19 and then to 21.

I was always a year older than the age limit, so I had no problems. I also didn’t own an automobile.:slight_smile:

That’s funny. I grew up in New York and was always a year BEHIND the age limit. Quite frustrating, I can tell you. When I was 17, it was 18. By the time I turned 18 they had changed it to 19, where I caught up with it, but they changed it to 21 when I was still 20! They didn’t “grandfather” the age either time (meaning people who could legally drink one day woke up the next morning too immature to handle alcohol).

I think you have something with respect to our higher dependence on the automobile BTW.

I agree with Laughing Lagomorph, that it is because the auto is such a big part of our culture. I have friends from the UK and their big lament is that you can’t walk anywhere here in the US.

BZZZZZ!!! Nope. Federal law stipulates buyers must be at least 21 to buy a handgun. I’m not saying there isn’t inconsistency in such laws but let’s get our facts right.

But you can join the Army at 17 (with mom’s signature) and go shoot heathens…but you can’t have a beer at the end of the day.

18 USCA 922 (Firearms/Unlawful Acts) says no sale of a handgun to a juvenile and defines juvenile as one under age 18. The database I used is dated Oct 03, 2003. Is this provision amended somewhere else?

Apart from proving that you americans are all daft, this thread makes me wonder:

You can’t get a drink until you’re 21? So what do you do? How do you get through college without beer ? In britain beer is a major student food group (the others are pot noodles and kebabs).

Surely you can get hold of drink. Big brothers buying it for you etc? What happens if you get caught?

In Britain the age is 18, but if you know the right pubs (and all teenagers do) you can easily get served at 16. You can’t drive until you’re 17 though.

No beer till 21? Sort yourselves out americans!

I was getting drunk with some regularity in America at the age of 15. It really isn’t that difficult.

Funny thing is, the laws have little or no effect on the DD rates here. People who want alcohol are going to go to greater lengths to get it, and will probably end up driving back from the woods or wherever they were drinking. If it was legal to drink at home or in restaurants with parents from the age of ~16 to 18-19, drunk driving among teen swould probably be curbed a lot more than setting such a high limit.

It’s written in a roundabout way which causes confusion as do many guns laws.

The Gun Control Act of 1968, Public Law 90-618

We had a 20 yrs old drinking age for years and dropped it to 18 a while back. I would wager that our public transport (at least in Auckland) is way worse then yours and we can hop behind the wheel at 15. It isn’t a good thing.

If you want to get pissed…where ever you may be as a teenager, it’s always possible. Much depends on the culture of the society. NZ (like Britain and Oz and other places i’m sure) has a very healthy binge drinking culture. “Being pissed” is a badge of honour as a teenager. That certainly does not mean it is a good thing, it’s just is the way it is.

(Obligatory caveat that local laws and typical law enforcement varies widely from state to state. I post from the point-of-view of a southeastern Louisianian.)


Drinking alcohol is a widely-practiced pastime at American universities, let me assure you.

Yes, university students can get ahold of drink. Very easily. More often than not, the help of an older accomplice is not necessary.

Getting caught while NOT driving: if you have the drink in your possession, you will be asked to dispense of said drink. If you no longer have the drink, but are obviously drunk, usually a police officer will kick you out of wherever you are (bar, restaurant, party). Any amount of jaill time would be exceedingly rare. Others’ MMV.

Getting caught while driving: Much more serious consequences which vary by locale. Suspension of driver’s license is virtually certain.

In some parts of the U.S., the age is 21, but if you know the right bars (and lots of teenagers do) you can easily get served at 18 … or occasionally younger.

Whatever gave you that idea? :wink:

I got drunk my first time at 16, but I could have much earlier. Generally people would just get a few people (sometimes even parents, who buy booze in exchange for getting to chaperone) to “pull” for them.

While some officers may just make an underage person dispose of their alcohol, you can be charged with “minor consumption of alcohol” or something similar. While it won’t result in jail time, it’s decent fine and some states will suspend the individual’s drivers license.

Also, many states have a “zero tolerance” policy on underage drinking and driving. So, you can be charged if your BAC is over .02, as opposed to .08 for someone over 21.

“Shoot heathens”? :confused: :confused: :confused:

I think the oddness, in my mind, is that a person is an adult at 18 in most ways (e.g. they can enter into contracts, and decide the fate of the nation through voting) but they are not “adult” enough to drink beer or wine or other liquor.

There’s a bit of a priority discrepancy there, isn’t it? Either the person is an adult or isn’t, but this conditional adultness doesn’t make much sense to me. Even in Ontario, where one can vote at 18 but not drink or smoke until 19…what does that extra year theoretically change in a person?

I think 21 is too old, especially if other adult rights are being granted a full three years earlier.

But I don’t really know all the stats and arguments, I can only speak from my own experience. I was actually drinking BEFORE I learned to drive (drinking around 15ish, driving at 16, legal age 18 in Quebec), and I think that gave me a much better sense of what I could handle, and it made driving that much more of a priviledge for me, and I was more responsible for it. Alcohol wasn’t hidden from us when we were young - in fact it was OFFERED, because my parents believed that if we were going to try it, we might as well do it at home, where we were safe.

This part of Ontario is fairly conservative, and I’ve seen many MANY frosh not drink until they were legally 19, and then drink themselves sick repeatedly and do stupid things, such as attempt to drive. Holding off that until the age of 21 seems even worse to me. Although this observation seems to only hold true for people who really had never had anything at all to drink before they turned 19. People who drank as minors seem able to handle it better, and at the time, they didn’t have a car or 10 000$ yearly tuition to throw away on their binges.

I know, I’m rambling, so I’ll stop now.