Why the US drinking age is 21

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Why the US drinking age is 21 5

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.

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.

💬 Comments on the video

Hey, thanks a lot for watching this Road Trip edition of Almanac. You also really shaped it in a ton of ways.
Don't miss them!

Author — Phil Edwards


21 to Drink, 18 to buy an AR15. Ah America.

Author — Spectrum UK


21 years old American:I can start drinking
21 years old Czech:
I should stop drinking

Author — Daniel Szeliga


16 to drive, 17 to enlist in the military, 18 to buy a gun, 18 to vote, and 21 to drink? Makes no sense.



"Why is the US drinking age 21?"
"Michael Jackson."
"Michael Jackson."

Author — Chez


Karens in 2020s: let me speak to the manager

Karens in 1980s: let me speak to the president

Author — RB86_Racing


18 year olds: Can I please have a cigarette or a beer?
US Government: Best I can do is war

Author — Fabricio Guerrero


Using a coloured map makes it almost impossible to actually visualise the colours

Author — G Mie


Me: I just turned 18, can I drink beer?
America: No.
Me: Oh...
America: Anyways, here's your shotgun-

Author — August


Me: Just turned 18 can I enlist in the military?
USA: Sure! Off to Afghanistan so be careful you might be shot.
Me: How about a beer?
USA: Nah sorry, too dangerous because roads

Author — zach nies


18 year old soldiers: Can we have beer?
US Army: All we can give is meth.

Author — Double Lightsaber ZAPASOWE


18yo american: ”I would like to buy some beer”
Employee: ”I can’t sell you that but maybe you would like to see some of our brand new handguns, they’re for sale”

Author — pnuser N


"Can I use guns and go to the military when I'm 18?"
USA: "Yeah"
"Can I drink alcohol, when I'm 18?"
USA: "Lol no, you're just a kid"

Author — Pierre Kovacik


16 year old in Europe: let's go buy some more vodka in that sketshy store, it's only 12AM
16 year olds in the USA: I'm taking my pickup and my shotgun to shoot some empty cans

Author — Serbia Stronk


*Answer:* Drunk Drivers

Just saved you minutes 9 minutes.

Author — FRISHR


Before: Moms Against Drunk Driving

Now: Moms Against Vaccinations

Author — HKM


Is they lowered the drinking age to 18 nation wide then teens would not drive to other states...

Author — Finn Anderson


20 year old amercians: i cant wait to drink*

16 year old germans: *WASSS??*

Author — Jed Maegraith


Vox always has background music that makes you feel like you're on the verge of cracking the divinci code.

Author — NeoTokioBoi


Mentally ill 18 year old with criminal record: heyo can i buy a 3200 fps deadly firearm
USA: ok
Law-abiding 19 year old: Can I have some beer?
USA: i'm gonna stop you right there

Author — Databas3