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Addressing Underage Drinking

More than 25,000 lives1,2 have been saved in the U.S. thanks to the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age.10,11 

This law continues to prevent tragedies—decreasing crashes by an estimated 16 percent9 and keeping young people safer from many risks.13

Sometimes, without knowing all the facts, people assert that youth shouldn’t have to wait until they’re 21 to drink. James C. Fell, a public health researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, responds to their questions.

Why do we make young people wait until 21 to drink alcohol?

Many activities have ages of initiation. A person must wait until age 16 to start driving, age 18 to marry without parental consent, age 35 to become president, and so on. 

The age limit for alcohol is based on research which shows that young people react differently to alcohol. Teens get drunk twice as fast as adults,9 but have more trouble knowing when to stop. Teens naturally overdo it and binge more often than adults.

Enforcing the legal drinking age of 21 reduces traffic crashes,4-6 protects young people’s maturing brains,12,14 and keeps young people safer overall

Can’t parents teach their teens how to drink alcohol responsibly by giving them small amounts—under supervision—before they reach 21?

Some states permit parents to do this with their own child (rarely, if ever, with someone else’s child), but there’s no evidence that this approach actually works.3 As matter of fact, there is evidence to contrary. When teens feel they have their parents’ approval to drink, they do it more and more often when they are not with their parents. When parents have concrete, enforced rules about alcohol, young people binge drink less. 

Would lowering the legal drinking age make alcohol less of a big deal, and less attractive to teens? 

History says no. When states had lower legal drinking ages in the U.S., the underage drinking problem was worse.3 For example, before the 21 minimum legal drinking age was implemented by all states, underage drunk drivers were involved in over twice as many fatal traffic crashes as today.3

I thought Europeans have fewer underage drinking problems … is it because their kids drink from an earlier age?

That’s a myth. European countries have worse problems than America does, as far as binge drinking and drinking to intoxication.2 Studies show that Europe has more underage drunkenness, injury, rape, and school problems due to alcohol.1,3 Since alcohol is more available there, it actually increases the proportion of kids who drink in Europe.

Some people propose a 40-hour alcohol education course for teens that would entitle teens to drink before 21. Is this a good idea?

Research shows that education alone doesn’t prevent risky behaviors. For example, driver education by itself does not reduce youth car crashes. Beginning drivers need other restrictions in place, such as curfews and passenger limits, to stay safe. In addition, there are clear health risks associated with underage drinking.

Sign up and receive MADD's research-based parent handbook and learn the best way to talk with your teenager about underage drinking.

I Know It's Important to Talk to My Teen About Drugs and Alcohol — But What Should I Say Exactly?

Recent news about bath salts and marijuana soda can leave parents wondering which substances are on their teen's radar. 

Soon thoughts may swirl through your mind: Do any of his friends smoke pot? Has he been offered a joint? Do her friends get drunk? Does she?  Of course, the only way to know the answers to these questions is to come out and ask

But we know this isn't as easy as it sounds. 

Well, one way to start the dialogue with your child is to use Teachable Moments

The idea is to use news items, movies, books or TV shows as a springboard to start a conversation about drugs or alcohol. "So, what do you think about what's going on with [insert fictional characters, celebrity, professional athlete, classmates or relative?]" or "Have you ever heard of bath salts?" 

Perhaps even one of the seven beer ads airing during this Sunday's Super Bowl might help spark a conversation. 

It's also important to know what's out there. To help you sound like you know what you're talking about, we've developed a handy Drug Guide for Parents (pdf) outlining the 13 most commonly used drugs by teens. 

Lastly, when you do talk with your child, ask him to share his experiences and opinions about teens who use. Then tell him how you feel and what you expect from him. Try to be warm but firm. 

For example, to support a no-use policy, you might say: 

  • "I'm not trying to ruin your fun. I love you and I want you to stay healthy. The best way to do that is to stay completely away from drugs and alcohol. I need you to promise that you will." 
  • "I realize there's a lot of temptation out there. I also know you're a really smart, strong person. That's why I expect you to stay clean — no matter what your friends are doing. Agreed?"
  • "There's a lot of new science about teens, drugs and alcohol. It scares me to know how easily you could damage your brain or get addicted. I want your word that you'll steer clear of all that, and keep me in the loop on the kids you hang out with, too." 

Keep in mind that kids who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use than those who don't get that message at home. So, while your chats may not be without their awkward moments, they're definitely worth it. 

What to say if your child asks, "Have you ever done drugs?" Well here are some thoughts on that one

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