From: Engs, Ruth C. [Ed.], Controversies in the Addiction's Field. Richard J. Goeman, "Why We Need A Minimum Purchase-Age of 21"

Back to table of contents
Home Page | Article List | Questionnaires | Books | Search my Files | Health Hints | Resume

Why We Need A Minimum Purchase-Age of 21

Richard J. Goeman, B.S.

With a current legal minimum-purchase age of 21 in the United States there has been, and continues to be, controversy. There are valid points concerning both sides of this issue, with either side offering fair grounds for debate. However, based on the literature, I have chosen to support the legal minimum-purchase age of 21. Available research appears to indicate this is the desired position and the current laws should remain unchanged. Although correct terminology states: "legal minimum-purchase age", for reasons of practicality, minimum age, minimum-drinking age, and legal age apply the same meaning. For this chapter these terms will be used interchangeably throughout.

For hundreds of years alcohol has been used for a variety of reasons. These include celebration, relaxation, and recreation (Wechsler, 1980). Also, before the practice of modern medicine alcohol was used incessantly as a medication to cure illness, as a vehicle for other drugs and patents, and for anesthesia.

Over the course of history beverage alcohol (i.e., beer, wine, and spirits) has been.readily available and frequently misused, although it was rarely deemed hazardous. In fact, dating back as early as the eighteenth century some authorities considered alcohol wholesome and good for the soul. During this period of time, purchase and consumption of alcohol by young people were loosely governed. The majority of young persons drank while experiencing little opposition from authorities. Even during the temperance movement there were no restrictions placed solely on youth regarding their use of beverage alcohol. Instead, the entire population experienced restrictions through regulation of hours of sale, location of alcohol outlets, and high license fees (Wagenaar, 1983). Early in the twentieth century, laws were enacted to govern the sale of beverage alcohol to youth. This became one way in which the state could gain limited control over adolescent behavior. However, it was not until after tile repeal of Prohibition in 1933 chat strict minimum-age laws were implemented. At that time all fifty states passed laws concerning the legal


minimum-purchase age; most states set the age at 21 (Wagenaar, 1983). Beyond that point little else took place for nearly four decades regarding the minimum-age law.

In 1970, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed by Congress. This Amendment granted the right to vote in Federal elections to citizens between the ages of 18 and 21. Shortly thereafter, a movement began that would allow other rights and privileges to the new "citizens of legal age." Over the next five years (1970- 1975) twenty-nine states lowered their legal minimum-purchase age (Engs and Hanson, 1988).

Effects of the Reduced Drinking-Age Law

With the reduction of these laws, controversy within the realms of academia, politics, law-enforcement, and industry quickly arose regarding the wisdom of such choices (Works, 1973; Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 1973; Bowen and Kagay, 1973; Zylman, 1973). Some individuals in the political arena argued that huge increases in alcohol related automobile accidents involving youth occurred immediately after lowering the minimum age (Michigan Council on Alcohol Problems, 1973). Other arguments surfacing during that time indicated these increases were due to changes in police-reporting techniques, increases in the number of young drivers, and long-term trends concerning alcohol consumption and the incidence of automobile accidents (Zylman, 1974). However, by the mid-1970s, controlled studies of the effects of reduced minimum-age laws were becoming available in the United States and Canada. Although the degree of magnitude varied among the states and provinces studied, the majority of research concluded that lowering the minimum legal- purchase age led to significant increases in alcohol-related automobile accidents among young drivers (Wagenaar, 1983).

Research was accomplished concerning the rate of fatal automobile accidents among fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old and eighteen-to-twenty-year-old drivers in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario where the minimum drinking-age had been lowered. The rate of fatal accidents in chose states and province, for 36 months prior to and 12 months after the law change, was compared with the rate of fatal accidents in the bordering states of Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota where the minimum-age law was not lowered. Significant increases in the number of fatal automobile accidents were found among all the ages previously listed in the states and province that chose to lower their minimum-drinking age. The rate was considerably higher for Michigan and Ontario than for Wisconsin. The lower rate in Wisconsin may have been due to a less drastic change in availability of alcohol. In Wisconsin, eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds had always been able


to purchase beer and wine (Williams, Rich, Zador, and Robertson, 1974). Studies conducted with the state of Massachusetts reported identical results. Research on automobile accidents using a "time series" method measured the rate of accident involvement of individuals aged fifteen-to-seventeen, eighteen-to-twenty, twenty-one-to-twenty-three, and twenty-four and over. After the minimum-age was reduced, eighteen-to-twenty-year-old drivers experienced significant increases in total fatal automobile accidents, alcohol-related fatal automobile accidents, and alcohol-related property damage accidents. However, there were no significant changes for drivers aged twenty-one-to-twenty- three and twenty-four and over (Cucchiaro, Ferreira, and Sicherman, 1974). Monthly time series was also the method used to compare data collected from Maine, Michigan, and Vermont where the minimum age was lowered, with Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas, where the minimum-age remained constant over the study period. These results revealed a significant increase in the rate of involvement in alcohol-related automobile accidents among young drivers in Maine and Michigan. It was suggested that lack of significant change in rates of automobile accidents in Vermont was due to the eighteen-year-old drinking age in the bordering state of New York (Douglass, Filkins, and Clark, 1974).

Three years later, Douglass and Freedman (1977) replicated parts of the above study. Results produced from that effort showed that the alarming rate of automobile accidents involving alcohol and young drivers had persisted over the first four years after the minimum-age was lowered (1972-1975). In yet a third study done in the state of Michigan, researchers using an entirely different analytical technique than Douglass were able to observe the same significant increase in alcohol-related automobile accidents among young drivers (Flora, Filkins, and Compton, 1978).

One of the most startling discoveries in opposition to reducing the legal age evolved from a study done in London, Ontario. Here, researchers examined the rates of automobile accidents in drivers aged sixteen-to-twenty and twenty-four years old for a six year period (1968 through 1973). Following a minimum-age reduction in Ontario, alcohol-related automobile accidents among drivers aged eighteen-to-twenty increased 150 to 300 percent. In the twenty-four-year-old age group, only a 20 percent increase in alcohol-related automobile accidents was noted (Whitehead et. al., 1975). After an additional two years of examining accident data, Whitehead (1977) was able to show a permanently higher rate in this type of automobile accident among young drivers after reducing the minimum drinking age.

In the province of Saskatchewan, researchers were able to document that after the legal-age was lowered from twenty-one to nineteen in April


1970, drivers aged sixteen-to-twenty experienced a 20 to 50 percent increase in automobile accidents involving alcohol. After the legal age was again reduced, this time to eighteen, in June 1972, this same group of drivers experienced further increases in automobile accidents where alcohol was the major contributing factor (Shattuck and Whitehead, 1976).

Researchers studying the effect of allowing young people to drink alcohol in Alberta, Canada examined the rate of drivers with blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or greater who had been fatally injured in automobile accidents. Alcohol related automobile accidents increased 118 percent among drivers aged fifteen-to-nineteen after the legal age was lowered (Bako, MacKenzie, and Smith, 1976).

The Economic and Other Costs to Society

The cost to society regarding the effects of the minimum-age law and use of alcohol in general has been insurmountable. The author here is not opposed to drinking alcohol. However, the manner and degree to which it is consumed in this country indicates a serious dilemma.

In the span of time since the legal-age was lowered, the United States has spent billions of dollars annually in health care, social services, property damage, and lost production (Berry and Boland, 1977; Schifrin, Hartsog, and Brand,1980). Unfortunately, the trend continues.

During a subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives in October 1983, a bill was introduced which favored prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons under 21 years of age. It reads: "Each year, 25,000 people are killed by drunken drivers. In disproportionate numbers, these drivers appear to be young people. The twenty-year old age category is a particular problem. Each year, highway accidents involving alcohol create economic losses of over $20 billion, and incalculable losses in terms of human suffering, wasted potential, social dislocation, and death" (Florio 1983).

A recent study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted that when there was an increase in fatal automobile accidents for teenage drivers, especially accidents involving alcohol, a direct correlation existed between the legal minimum- drinking age and the incidence of these accidents.

In 1984, in New York state alone, the State Division of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse projected that a 21 -year-old minimum drinking-age would save on an annual basis 60-70 lives, 1,200 serious injuries, and 75 million dollars in societal costs (Padavan, 1984). The organization, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD,1983)reported that 25 cents of every auto insurance premium dollar goes to pay for damage done by drunk drivers.


These figures are astronomical when one considers a state such as Michigan, where only high-price "No-Fault" insurance is permitted. What our society pays in human suffering, wasted potential, and death is beyond anyone's comprehension.

Positive Outcome Studies

Contrasting all the studies reporting negative results, there are many that report positive after states and provinces raise the legal-age. For example, Maine experienced, between 1974 and 1979, a reduction from 14 to 20 percent in automobile accidents involving alcohol after raising their legal-age (Klein, 1981). Research completed in the state of Illinois revealed a 9 percent decrease in nighttime single-vehicle accidents among nineteen-to-twenty-year-old drivers after raising their legal-age from nineteen to twenty-one in January 1980 (Maxwell, 1981). One investigation examined fatal automobile accident involvement from 1975 to 1980 in nine states that chose to raise their minimum-age. Bordering states were used in comparison which did not raise their minimum-age. Eight of the nine states experienced decreases in young driver involvement in nighttime fatal automobile accidents after the minimum-age was raised; accident reductions ranged from 6 to 75 percent. Averaging across the nine states studied, the researchers concluded that increasing the legal minimum-purchase age in any given state should result in a 28 percent reduction in nighttime fatal automobile accidents among the age group affected by the legal change (Williams,ador, Harris, and Karpf, 1981). It should be noted here that Cook andTauchen (1982) estimated the effect of allowing youth access to alcohol by reducing the drinking-age, using nationwide United States data on the number of young people killed in automobile accidents. Results of the fatality data pooled across states and years revealed that a 7 percent increase in the number of youth killed in automobile accidents was correlated with reductions in the legal minimum- purchase age.

Other studies have shown that when minimum-age laws are lowered, there is an increase in alcohol-related problems other than driving while intoxicated. For example, Engs and Hanson (1986) report that in states with under 21 minimum-age laws, a higher percentage of students reported drinking an alcoholic beverage while driving, missing classes due to drinking, receiving lower grades due to drinking, and indicating they thought they had a drinking problem. In other research, it may be noted that among New England college students, 29 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women were classified as heavy drinkers (Wechsler and McFadden, 1979). Half of these students reported experiencing problems related to drinking, such as blackouts, fighting, and trouble with authorities (Wechsler


and Rohman, 1981).

The apparent relationship between age and unsafe and irresponsible behavior while drinking or drunk driving is fairly easy to document. During adolescence end early adulthood (15 to 24), accidents, homicides, and suicides account for 75 percent of all fatalities. However, the activity generating the highest number of deaths in this age group is automobile accidents. Whatever the cause of death, alcohol is clearly implicated in at least 50percent ofthe fatalities for this age population. Duringlate adolescence and early adulthood, male and female alike have a higher risk of incurring some negative consequence(s) associated with use of alcohol than during any other point in their lifetime. Many individuals, professional or otherwise, acknowledge that a reduction in alcohol consumption by persons underthe age of 21 is a necessary and effective means forreducing alcohol related automobile accidents and other problems associated with the use of alcohol. These individuals cite data showing that when the legal minimum-purchase age is lowered, there is a significant increase in the rate of automobile accidents and cases in which young people operated a motor vehicle while intoxicated (Wechsler, 1980).

In summary, the information in review here indicates that the majority of studies concerning the impact of lower legal drinking-ages on involvement in automobile accidents and other alcohol-related problems continue to show significant increases. Person most often involved with these increases are those who under the new law become eligible to purchase alcohol; usually eighteen-to-twenty-year-old individuals. Therefore, to prevent further drinking and other related problems among youth in our society, the current legal minimum purchase age of 21 should continue.


Bako, G., MacKenzie, W.C., and Smith, E.S.O. (1976). "The Effect of Legislated Lowering of the Drinking Age on Total Highway Accidents among Young Drivers in Alberta, 1970-1972." Canadian Journal of Public Health, 38 161-163.

Berry, R.E., Jr. and Brand, I.P. (1977). The Economic Cost of Alcohol Abuse. Free Press: New York.

Bowen, B.D. and Kagay, M.R. (1973). Report to the White House Conference on Youth: The Impact of Lowering the Age of Majority to 18. White House Conference on Youth: Washington, DC.

Cook, P.J. and Tauchen, G. (1982). The Effect of Minimum Drinking Age Legislation on Youthful Auto Fatalities 1970- 1977. Unpublished manuscript.


Cucchiaro, S., Ferreira,Jr., andSicherman,A. (1974). The Effect of the 18year-old Drinking Age on Auto Accidents. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Operations Research Center. Cambridge, MA.

Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. (1973). "Survey of Minimum Age Law Experience on Drinking/Driving." DISCUS Newsletter, 330

Douglass, R.L., Filkins, L.D., and Clark, PA.). The Effect of Lower Legal Drinking Ages on Youth Crash Involvement. The University of Michigan, Highway Safety Research Institute. Ann Arbor, Ml.

Douglass, R.L. and Freedman, J.A. ( 1977). Alcohol-related Casualties and Alcohol Beverage Market Response to Beverage AlcoholAvailability Policies in Michigan. The University of Michigan, Highway Safety Research Institutes. Ann Arbor, Ml.

Engs, R.C. and Hanson, D.J. (1986). Age-Specific Alcohol Prohibition and College Students' Drinking Problems. Psychological Reports, 59 979-984.

Engs, R.C. and Hanson, D.J. (1988). University Students' Drinking Patterns and Problems: Examining the Effects of Raising the Purchase Age. Public Health Reports, 103 (6) 667-673.

Flora, J.D., Filkins, L.D., and Compton, C.D. (1978). Alcohol Involvement in Michigan Fatal Accidents: 1968-1976. The University of Michigan, Highway Safety Research Institute. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Florio, J.J. (1983). Prohibit the Sale of Alcoholic Beverages to Persons Under 21 Years of Age. H.R. 3870. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism. Washington, DC.

Klein, T. (1981). The Effect of Raising the Minimum Legal Drinking Age on Traffic Accidents in the State of Maine. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Washington, DC.

Maxwell, D.M. (1981). Impact Analysis of the Raised Legal Age in Illinois. U.S. National Traffic Safety Administration: Washington, DC.

Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). (1983). Striking Back at the Drunk Driver, pp. 582-583.

Padavan, F. (1984). "21"-It Makes Sense/Education, Prevention, Enforcement, Raising the Drinking Age. New York, New York.

Schifrin, L.G., Hartsog, C.E., and Brand, D.H. (1980). "Costs of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and Their Relation to Alcohol Research." In Institute of Medicine, ea., Alcoholism, Alcohol Abuse and Related Problems: Opportunities for Research, pp. 165-186. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.

Shattuck, D. and Whitehead, P.C. (1976). Lowering the Drinking Age in Saskatchewan: The Effect on Collisions among Young Drivers.


partment of Health: Saskatchewan, Canada.

Wagenaar, A.C. (1983). Alcohol, Young Drivers, and Traffic Accidents. Lexington Books, Lexington, Massachusetts.

Wechsler, H. and McFadden, M. (1979). Drinking among College Students in New England. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 40 969-996.

Wechsler, H. and Rohman, M. (1981). Extensive Users of Alcohol among College Students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 42 149- 155.

Wechsler, H. (1980). Minimum - Drinking - Age Laws. Lexington Books: Lexington, MA.

Whitehead, P.C., Craig, J., Langford, N., MacArthur, C., Stanton, B., and Ferrence, R.G. (1975). "Collision Behavior of Young Drivers: Impact of the Change in the Age of Majority."Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 36 1208-1223.

Whitehead, P.C. ( 1977). Alcohol and Young Drivers: Impact and lmplications of Lowering the Drinking Age. Non-medical use of Drugs Directorate. Department of National Health and Welfare, Health Protection Branch, Research Bureau: Ottawa, Ontario.

Williams, A.F., Rich, R.F., Zador, P.L., and Robertson, L.S. (1974). The Legal Minimum Drinking Age and Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Washington, DC.

Williams, A.F., Zador, P.L., Harris, S.S., and Karpf, R.S. (1981). 'The Effects of Raising the Legal Minimum Drinking Age on Fatal Crash Involvement." Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: Washington, DC.

Works, D.A. (1973). "Statement on 18-Year Old Drinking." Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 18 14.

Zylman, R. (1974). "Drinking and Driving after It's Legal to Drink at 18: Is the Problem Real?" Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 20 48-52.

Zylman, R. (1973). "When It is Legal to Drink at 18: What Should We Expect?" Journal of Traffic Safety Education, 20 9-10.


Back to table of contents/