The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C. § 158) was passed by the United States Congress on July 17, 1984. It was a controversial bill that punished every state that allowed persons below 21 years to purchase and publicly possess alcoholic beverages by reducing its annual federal highway apportionment by ten percent. The law was later amended, lowering the penalty to eight percent from fiscal year 2012 and beyond.
Despite its name, this act did not outlaw the consumption of alcoholic beverages by those under 21 years of age, just its purchase. However, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, and the District of Columbia extended the law into an outright ban. The minimum purchase and drinking ages is a state law, and most states still permit "underage" consumption of alcohol in some circumstances. In some states, no restriction on private consumption is made, while in others, consumption is only allowed in specific locations, in the presence of consenting and supervising family members as in the states of Colorado, Maryland, Montana, New York, Texas, West Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The act also does not seek to criminalize alcohol consumption during religious occasions; (e.g. communion wines, Kiddush).
The act was expressly upheld as constitutional in 1987 by the United States Supreme Court in South Dakota v. Dole.
The United States is one of only four developed countries in the world that has a nationwide drinking age of over 18, with the other three being South Korea (19), Iceland (20), and Japan (20).
Legislation concerning the legal minimum drinking age in the United States can be traced back to the days of prohibition. In 1920, the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell intoxicating liquors. This was repealed with the passing of the 21st amendment in 1933, which was followed by the adoption of minimum legal drinking age policies in all states, with most states electing a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. Between 1970 and 1975, 29 states lowered the MLDA from 21 to 18, 19, or 20. This was primarily due to the passing of the 26th Amendment which lowered the required voting age from 21 to 18.
During the 1960s, both Congress and the state legislatures came under increasing pressure to lower the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. This was in large part due to the Vietnam War, in which many young men who were ineligible to vote (or legally drink) were conscripted to fight in the war, thus lacking any means to influence the people sending them off to risk their lives. "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," was a common slogan used by proponents of lowering the voting age. The slogan traced its roots to World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt lowered the military draft age to eighteen. With the lowering of the voting age to 18, the MLDA was similarly lowered under the notion that by being able to vote (and for males, be subject to being involuntarily drafted into the enlisted ranks of the military), one should also be able to legally consume alcoholic beverages.
However, these changes were soon followed by studies showing an increase in motor vehicle fatalities attributable to the decreased MLDA. In response to these findings, many states raised the minimum legal drinking age to 19 (and sometimes to 20 or 21). In 1984, the National Minimum Legal Drinking Act, written by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and influenced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), required all states to enforce a minimum legal drinking age of 21 or else risk losing 10% of all federal highway construction funds.
As the minimum legal drinking age was still left to the discretion of the state, the act did not violate the 21st amendment which reserved the right to regulate alcohol for all responsibilities not specifically appointed to the federal government to the states. However, as the act controlled the distribution of anywhere from 8 to 99 million dollars, depending on the size of the state, the act gave a strong incentive for states to change the drinking age to 21. By 1995, all 50 states, two permanently inhabited territories, and D.C. were in compliance, but Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands (and Guam until 2010) remained at 18 despite them losing 10% of federal highway funding.
Professor of law Tim Jost noted that the Roberts Court ruling in NFIB v. Sebelius, though upholding South Dakota v. Dole, had serious implications for future laws that incentivize state action.
The Court expressly distinguished South Dakota v. Dole, the drinking age case, because only a small portion of highway funds were at risk.... There will certainly be future litigation when other federal programs are changed and all of the funding for the existing program is at risk, however.
Constitutional lawyer Adam Winkler disagrees saying
The health care decision on Medicaid is likely to be limited to its facts.... Where a state's budget is truly dependent on federal dollars to survive, then conditional spending offers will be called into question. The health care decision doesn't purport to call into question any previous conditional spending law. And its not likely to have much impact because there's no clear majority opinion establishing new limits.
The Conservative Party of New York opposed the passage of the law in 1984. In 2001, according to the same article, New York State Assembly member Félix Ortiz introduced a bill that would lower the drinking age back to 18. He cited unfairness and difficulty with enforcement as his motivations.
In 1998, the National Youth Rights Association was founded, in part, to seek to lower the drinking age back to 18. In 2004, the president of Vermont's Middlebury College, John McCardell, Jr. wrote in The New York Times that "the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law" that has made the college drinking problem far worse. Groups that oppose the 21 minimum include Choose Responsibility, the Amethyst Initiative, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports the 21 law and has been the main opponent to lowering it back to 18.
A key cluster of philosophical opposition to the minimum lies in the natural human need for education and experience; young adults do not receive the opportunity to educate themselves and drink responsibly before the age of 21. A related line of thought emphasizes the importance of individual rights and freedoms. Another cluster comes from pragmatism, emphasizing the reality that young people are unlikely to stop drinking, and point to statistics on underage drinking as a reason to institute a lower drinking age, which would provide the opportunity to help "young people learn to make healthy and responsible choices". Social environmental theories are also cited; making alcohol a forbidden fruit may encourage more dangerous drinking than would occur if the drinking age were lowered. With a lower drinking age, young people would have access to "publicly moderated drinking environments", rather than "model their behavior after the excessive consumption typical of private student parties", though the perception of excessive drinking on college campuses is often overstated.
When brewing magnate Pete Coors raised the drinking age as a campaign issue during the 2004 U.S. Senate race in Colorado, Republican leaders praised his stand on States' rights but distanced themselves from apparent self-interest.
College campuses across the nation continue to struggle with issues of underage drinking, despite the nationwide MLDA of 21. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) took special interest in this issue, and compiled a list of recommendations for colleges to implement in order to combat underage drinking on campus. However, few schools have actually implemented these recommendations, and according to a recent study, most of the intervention programs currently in place on college campuses have proven ineffective. Underage drinking is nearly impossible to prevent on college campuses because access to alcoholic beverages is extremely easy.
Though it is not the only factor that contributes to student drinking, liquor's contraband status seems to imbue it with mystique. As a result, use and abuse of liquor is seen as sophisticated and is expected.
Of the colleges surveyed, 98% offered alcohol education programs to their students. Only 50% of surveyed colleges offered intervention programs, 33% coordinated efforts with the surrounding community to monitor illegal alcohol sales, 15% confirmed that surrounding establishments offered responsible beverage service training, and 7% restricted the number of alcohol outlets within the community. Special services for "problem drinkers" were available at 67% of the surveyed schools; 22% of the schools referred problem drinkers to off-campus resources, and 11% offered no intervention program whatsoever. 34% of the surveyed schools were located in communities which actively instituted compliance checks, but 60% of these checks occurred without university involvement. One fifth of surveyed schools were all together unaware of the NIAAA's recommendations.
Many factors may explain colleges' failure to implement the NIAAA's recommendations to control underage drinking on campus: a lack of university funding, a lack of time, a perceived lack of authority or jurisdiction within the community, or even a lack of interest on the part of the university, many universities even see the program as a waste of resources. Whatever the reasons may be, a multitude of options are available should colleges choose to institute programs to decrease instances of underage drinking on campus. These options include, but are not limited to, alcohol education programs, social norms campaigns, substance-free housing, individual interventions, parental notification policies, disciplinary procedures for alcohol-related violations, and amnesty policies to protect the health and safety of students.
There is strong evidence supporting the United States' drinking age of 21 years, e.g. with respect to its effectiveness in reducing highway crashes. Multiple studies have concluded that increasing the MLDA to 21 resulted in a 19% decrease in traffic fatalities. The MLDA of 21 saves the lives of as many as 1,000 young Americans every year. A 2014 review found that the under-21 law has reduced "alcohol-related traffic crashes and alcohol consumption among youths", as well as protected youths from adverse health outcomes they might experience as adults, including "alcohol and other drug dependence, adverse birth outcomes, and suicide and homicide." A 2016 study suggests that a higher drinking age reduces "accidental injuries, alcohol overdoses, and injuries inflicted by others."