Why the US drinking age is 21

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Vox
Published at : 05 Dec 2020
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Why is the US drinking age 21? And how did it happen? In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards explores the history of the somewhat unusual way the drinking age became 21.

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After prohibition — the total ban on alcohol — many states established a minimum legal drinking age of 21. But that began to change after the voting age was lowered to 18. Many states followed by lowering their drinking ages, which changed the landscape for the entire country.

By the 1980s, this unusual patchwork of drinking ages started to be seen as a problem, especially by activist organizations like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers). They lobbied for a 21-year-old minimum legal drinking age, and President Ronald Reagan supported the cause. His mechanism for enabling a national law? Threatening to withhold Federal Highway funding to states that didn’t comply.

It was an unpredictable strategy for an official typically hesitant to use federal power over the states, and the practice was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court, where it was upheld.

Beyond the political clash, it’s a look at how roads shape policy.

Further reading

Watch President Reagan’s speech about his alcohol policy. The Reagan Library on YouTube has a huge repository of speeches, photo ops, and ephemera related to the Reagan Presidency.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfe-hU6zGS8

Here are the full remarks with Michael Jackson:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgFgTs5N8q8

And another view of that day’s events:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHSf8sIMBM8

Here’s the Center for Disease Control’s review of the minimum legal drinking age’s (MLDA) effects (including the paper cited in this video):
https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/minimum-legal-drinking-age.htm

For a dissenting view, you can read this paper questioning the effectiveness of the MLDA:
https://www.nber.org/papers/w13257.pdf

This is the Supreme Court case that affirmed the MLDA law.
https://www.oyez.org/cases/1986/86-260

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