Why the US drinking age is 21

  • Published: 23 August 2019
  • 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.

    Here are the full remarks with Michael Jackson:

    And another view of that day’s events:

    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):

    For a dissenting view, you can read this paper questioning the effectiveness of the MLDA:

    This is the Supreme Court case that affirmed the MLDA law.

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Comments • 6 119

  • Phil Edwards
    Phil Edwards  3 weeks back

    Hey, thanks a lot for watching this Road Trip edition of Almanac. You also really shaped it in a ton of ways.
    Watch the rest of the episodes here: http://bit.ly/2ZzDmkR
    Don't miss them!

    • Azzambie
      Azzambie  17 hours back

      @CJ Londonio Our generation has some defects like you

    • CJ Londonio
      CJ Londonio  3 weeks back

      second lol

    • Max Sugerman
      Max Sugerman  3 weeks back

      Your stories are so informative and incredibly interesting. Always so well researched and well presented

  • Newcastle utd 1892
    Newcastle utd 1892  43 minutes back

    Here in the UK we start drinking heavy at 12

    • Snowy 4
      Snowy 4  2 hours back

      I america they drink at 21, in slovakia we think that we'll stop at that age.

      • Vikas Ahuja
        Vikas Ahuja  5 hours back

        What did it all have to do with Michael Jackson?

        • William Desler
          William Desler  7 hours back

          in denmark we can buy alcohol at the age 16

          • Web Log
            Web Log  8 hours back

            I miss ronald reagen

            • Shish K
              Shish K  13 hours back

              Why dont just drop every state to 18 lul

              • Bobbie Lee
                Bobbie Lee  23 hours back

                Most questionable policies can be traced back to Reagan. Insurance companies were the big lobbyists behind getting the age raised.

                • MaxRanIn2aWall
                  MaxRanIn2aWall  1 days back

                  My parents never restricted me from drinking alcohol, and now I understand moderation and don’t care to drink at all.

                  • Sha Cloon
                    Sha Cloon  1 days back

                    but you can shoot a school up with 14 years so it‘s something 🤷🏻‍♂️

                    • CutUr BullShit
                      CutUr BullShit  1 days back

                      So that ya'll wont raid Area 51. But that didnt work, did it?

                      • Pak Neger
                        Pak Neger  1 days back

                        Maybe set guns to 21 and alcohol to 18

                        • endrief1
                          endrief1  1 days back

                          The easiest thing to do is bash the logic of a decision of the past ignoring its reality, its context. America went from a relatively sober, responsible society to a derailed one full of drunks, drug users, abusers, high marital abuse and divorce rates, in a matter of half a generation. We can argue all day whether Reagan’s tough on crime, tough on drugs laws helped or didnt help in the long run...but dont ignore the fact that the 70s and 80s were such a shock for this country that, wrong or right, something had to be done! Talk about reform, we always should! But dont bash the guy who made a song named Beat It, literally crying out loud to stop the nonsense. 1983 was the most murderous year of the 20th century and the most with drunk driving deaths! Keep that in mind before judging these laws!

                          • unoriginal username
                            unoriginal username  2 days back

                            I'm watching this tipsy XD

                            • unoriginal username
                              unoriginal username  2 days back

                              I'm watching this tipsy XD

                              • I have wasted my life
                                I have wasted my life  2 days back

                                Thanks FLORIDA

                                • 3506Dodge
                                  3506Dodge  2 days back

                                  This isn't strictly true. You must be 21 to make a retail purchase of alcohol, but you can possess, consume, receive, sell, and serve alcohol at various ages in various states.

                                  • Kieran Jaymes
                                    Kieran Jaymes  2 days back

                                    hmm.. wonder why they havent done that with the age of consent? it varies from state to state....

                                    • chingchonglink
                                      chingchonglink  2 days back

                                      americans we banned diner surprise since kids were choking

                                      also america we let kids buy guns

                                      • Dani3po
                                        Dani3po  2 days back

                                        If amendments are added to the U.S.A. constitution often, why the second one is so untouchable?

                                        • MrCouchmen
                                          MrCouchmen  2 days back

                                          Why the US drinking age is 21? Rooted results prohibition from 20s and 30s.Maybe?
                                          (European explanation )

                                          • Robert Vincent
                                            Robert Vincent  2 days back

                                            Why is Michael Jackson even in this video?

                                            • Robert Vincent
                                              Robert Vincent  2 days back

                                              The USA have so rapidly become one of the most pitiable and ridiculous countries from once being an example for the rest of the world

                                              • No co
                                                No co  3 days back

                                                Because of the choice of music, I kept expecting Stranger Things title-screen to pop up

                                                • Max Sterling
                                                  Max Sterling  3 days back

                                                  Drinking age in Ontario is 19 and in Quebec is 18, all the 18+ year old going to college in cities bordering Canada drive their to drink legally.

                                                  • Tobias Schächtele
                                                    Tobias Schächtele  3 days back

                                                    You used Sharpiegate and turned it into something creative I see :D

                                                    • Alejandro Sudiro
                                                      Alejandro Sudiro  3 days back

                                                      If you’re still complaining, the rule can be reversed. Drinking age at 18 and driving at 21. Still maintaining DUI level.

                                                      • MADE IN AUSTRALIA
                                                        MADE IN AUSTRALIA  3 days back

                                                        But you can buy an AR15 at like 12

                                                        • steward joey
                                                          steward joey  4 days back

                                                          21 or 18 poison is a poison

                                                          • David Perry
                                                            David Perry  4 days back

                                                            The drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and wine, and 18 for liquor.

                                                            • Crysco
                                                              Crysco  4 days back

                                                              Too much disrespect on MJ man. What ever you believe is YOUR opinion.

                                                              • Newty Boy
                                                                Newty Boy  4 days back

                                                                *gets alcohol ad before video*

                                                                • Muhammad Ilham Jamaludin

                                                                  Michael Jackson has literally nothing to do with the problem or solution. You can still get the whole point of the video if it doesn't include Michael Jackson at all.

                                                                  • sarah chickie
                                                                    sarah chickie  4 days back

                                                                    i wrote an essay about this last year

                                                                    • Iahi Ghusak
                                                                      Iahi Ghusak  4 days back

                                                                      I'll save you about 10 minutes: The Federal Government threatened to withhold funds for roads if states did not change their drinking laws to 21+. Louisiana was the last hold out, but the federal purse strings were too important, and they eventually caved, making us a 21+ drinking nation. There. Now you have 9:15 to do other stuff.

                                                                      • domukaz
                                                                        domukaz  4 days back

                                                                        lol at Vox biting one of Jon Bois's favorite public-domain background tunes

                                                                        • Patryk Estevez
                                                                          Patryk Estevez  4 days back

                                                                          In Germany u can buy bottles of wine and beer at 16^^

                                                                          • Hrnn Pgtt
                                                                            Hrnn Pgtt  5 days back

                                                                            I thought it had to do with America's imperial system..and did MJ try to get kids drunk before puberty? Is that why it changed to + 21? I'm confused...

                                                                            • Tate pilger
                                                                              Tate pilger  5 days back


                                                                              • Christen Cummings
                                                                                Christen Cummings  5 days back

                                                                                I had a Modelo ad for this video 😂😂😂

                                                                                • Andre Zou
                                                                                  Andre Zou  5 days back

                                                                                  "...you have to be 21 in every state to buy alcohol"

                                                                                  Don't you hate when you are 21 in every other states but not in New York so you can't buy drinks?

                                                                                  After thinking about it, because of the time zone difference something like that could actually happen :(

                                                                                  • Mirror16
                                                                                    Mirror16  5 days back

                                                                                    Yet another reason to hate Reagan

                                                                                    • William Blair
                                                                                      William Blair  5 days back

                                                                                      What's the difference between 21 and 21+?

                                                                                      • Casi Paul
                                                                                        Casi Paul  41 minutes back

                                                                                        21 alone, on the map, means 21 with exceptions.

                                                                                      • DeadshotS 4444
                                                                                        DeadshotS 4444  4 days back

                                                                                        William Blair it’s probably not state wide ? Like some cities can have 21 some 23 some 25 most likely but don’t quote me on that I am probably wrong, just a thought

                                                                                    • Mytex
                                                                                      Mytex  5 days back

                                                                                      Love the legal beer at 16 in Germany

                                                                                      • Ire96
                                                                                        Ire96  5 days back

                                                                                        What’s 21 going to do? Americans drive at 16! Kids driving! And you wonder why there’s crashes...? Glad to be European

                                                                                        • TheMrFabian1
                                                                                          TheMrFabian1  5 days back

                                                                                          And then there are countries where the legal drinking age for beer, wine - and the age of consent - is 14. Ah, good old Europe!

                                                                                          • Gabriel Abrahão
                                                                                            Gabriel Abrahão  5 days back

                                                                                            Hey, where can I get a cool cleanable writeable map like that?

                                                                                            • Abba the Dane
                                                                                              Abba the Dane  5 days back

                                                                                              Either the age should be 18 to drink, or the draft and vote age should be 21