Legal drinking age is most commonly understood to be the minimum legal age at which a person may purchase beverage alcohol in any given jurisdiction. However, it should be noted that the legal age for consuming alcohol and the legal age for purchasing alcohol are, in some instances, different age limits.
For the purposes of this discussion, unless otherwise indicated, “legal drinking age” will be understood to be the legal age for the purchase of alcohol, whether on-premise (e.g., pubs, cafes, bars, restaurants) or off-premise (liquor stores, “state stores,” supermarkets, etc.). Also for the purposes of this discussion, the concept of legal drinking age is understood to preclude religious occasions and ceremonies which may traditionally involve beverage alcohol, as well as parental serving of alcohol to their children in the home. (For similar and additional related content, see The Issues Forum entry on Underage Drinking.)
BACKGROUND AND THE ISSUE
In the majority of countries, governments set a minimum age at which it is legally permissible to drink and/or to purchase alcohol. Generally speaking, the legal purchase limit set by a local, state, or national government reflects the age at which it is deemed acceptable for individuals to consume alcohol.
That said, as the research indicates, in some countries, the legal ages for purchase—versus legal ages for consumption—vary. In addition, certain age limits differ according to on-premise and off-premise distinctions, the type of beverage alcohol being purchased or consumed, and whether the consumption is taking place with a parent present, or in the family home.
Issues related to legal drinking age tend to focus on disparities amongst age limits, inconsistent or ineffective enforcement of age limits, and harmful behaviors associated with alcohol abuse such as binge drinking.
Age Limits Worldwide: A Mix of Distinctions
In addition to making general distinctions between purchase and consumption, drinking age laws also distinguish specifically between the ages at which alcohol can be consumed and purchased on-premise (generally pubs, cafes, bars, restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores, “state stores,” supermarkets, etc.). Legislation in some countries addresses on- and off-premise sales separately, while in other countries, it makes no such delineation. Where legislation makes the on- or off-premise distinction, the minimum age tends to be lower for off-premise purchasei. In addition, some laws assign different minimum ages based on the type of beverage alcohol being consumed or purchased—for example, beer or wine versus spirits (see table below). Some jurisdictions also apply age limits differently (or do not apply them at all) in circumstances which include parents being present or alcohol being served by parents at home.ii, iii
APPENDIX I: Minimum Age Limits Worldwideiv
As indicated by the examples in Appendix I, the most commonly legislated minimum age for both on-premise consumption and off-premise purchase is 18-years old, with lower limits in countries such as France and Denmark (16-years old for off-premise purchase), and higher limits in the United States, Indonesia, and Micronesia (21-years old for on- and off-premise purchase) and Japan (20-years old).
In addition, there are countries where the age limit scenarios become even more complex. For example, in Austria, for distilled spirits, the minimum age for purchase and consumption is 16-years old in three of nine Federal States, and 18-years old in the six other Federal States (with some Federal States differentiating by alcohol content, legislating higher minimum ages for purchase or consumption of drinks with alcohol content of 12 percent Alcohol By Volume (ABV) or more). In Canada, the legal age for consumption or purchase is 18-years old in three provinces, but 19-years old in the remaining provinces. In India, on- and off-premise legal age limits range from 18 to 25, depending on the state. In Belgium, there is no minimum off-premise purchase age for wine and beer; in Brazil, there is no minimum off-premise purchase age for any kind of beverage alcohol.v
Variations in the Law and Enforcement Implications
Drinking age limits are largely a reflection of the cultural influences and collective societal values of any given community, state, or nation. In turn, these social norms tend to coincide with drinking patterns – the styles, contexts, and cultural dimensions of drinking in societies worldwide.vi The range of differences in societal practices and cultural drinking patterns is reflected in the array of rules and laws which dictate legal drinking ages around the globe.
Such variations in drinking age rules and laws present certain enforcement challenges. For example, young people below the drinking age under one set of laws may have easy access to alcohol in a nearby jurisdiction with lower age limits. The phenomenon of young people crossing borders to circumvent legal drinking age requirements has been linked in research to problems such as alcohol-impaired driving and binge drinking. As a result, in some parts of the world—for example, within the European Union—there has been public debate about harmonizing alcohol policies from country to country in order to reduce the risk of potential harms associated with young people crossing borders for the purpose of purchasing and/or consuming alcohol.vii
Research has consistently reinforced the finding that visible and effective enforcement of drinking laws is the key to the success of legislation, including drinking age limits.viii More specifically, studies of the effects of increased enforcement show it to be a highly effective way to reduce alcohol sales to minors. For instance, targeted enforcement efforts with high visibility such as compliance checks on retail alcohol outlets have been found to typically cut rates of sales to minors by at least 50 percent.ix
In addition to enforcement activity focused on retail outlets, personnel in on-premise settings may be trained to enforce minimum age limits by requiring proper identification of patrons who might potentially be underage. Enforcement efforts and methods may also include penalties for underage drinkers which are linked to their driving privileges (e.g., revocation or suspension), as well as fines or revocation of serving licenses for establishments who are in violation of legal drinking age laws and regulations.
Despite its pivotal role, enforcement of minimum drinking age laws, in many countries, has been shown to be generally inconsistent and in many instances, only sporadically visible or effective.x
Moreover, in countries such as the United States where the 21-year old minimum legal drinking age is higher than in most jurisdictions worldwide, there is research which shows that youth under age 21 do in fact illegally obtain and consume alcohol. For example, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in the U.S. reports that more than one quarter (28.1 percent) of people aged 12 to 20 consumed alcohol in the past month—including:
51.1 percent of those aged 18 to 20,
25.9 percent of those aged 15 to 17, and
6.1 percent of those aged 12 to 14.xi
In addition, the annual Monitoring the Future survey results issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reflect that in 2008, the percentage of underage youth who admitted drinking an alcohol beverage in the prior 30-day period were represented as follows:
Such findings, in addition to the perceived inadequacy of enforcement efforts on and around university campuses in the United States, have raised questions about the efficacy of the nationwide minimum drinking age limit of 21-years old. Recently, college presidents from about 100 of the best-known U.S. universities called on lawmakers to consider a national debate about the possible benefits of lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, suggesting that current laws may actually encourage binge drinking on campuses.
The Amethyst Initiative, which falls under the umbrella of the Choose Responsibility organization (www.chooseresponsibility.org), is based on a rationale that college students will drink whether it is legal or not – but if it is illegal, are more likely to do so in a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking.”xiii In addition to a national debate on the drinking age, they are encouraging increased education possibly tied with licensing if the age were lowered. This is an aspect of the policy dialogue which draws focus to the United States, as it is one of only a few countries with a legal drinking age of 21.xiv The various viewpoints on this topic, however, touch on research and observations from around the world.
The marketing of beverage alcohol is a topic which has attracted a great deal of research, as well as media attention. In particular, there has been significant focus on the relationship between marketing and alcohol consumption by underage youth, as well as young peoples’ expectations about the experience they will have if they consume alcohol.
To briefly summarize this well-researched subject: Although a causal link between advertising and underage consumption has not been established, a limited number of studies have shown modest correlations between advertising and alcohol consumption by underage youth and young adults who are of college age. Such studies have, in turn, been refuted by other research.xv Yet the fact remains that advertising of alcohol beverages is a matter for serious policy consideration, especially where there is concern that such advertisements may in some way attract the attention of underage youth.
In its most recent assessment of alcohol advertising in 2008, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) noted the importance of “changing adult attitudes” about teen alcohol consumption, citing it as one of the factors behind its launch of the “We Don’t Serve Teens” consumer education program. The program targets parents and other adults with messages such as: “Don’t serve alcohol to teens. It’s unsafe. It’s illegal. It’s irresponsible.” (For more information and research citations on this topic, see The Issues Forum entry on Underage Drinking.)
iInternational Center for Alcohol Policies, Blue Book, Module 12. See: http://www.icap.org/Publication/ICAPBlueBook/tabid/148/Default.aspx.
iiWorld Health Organization (WHO). (2004). Global status report: Alcohol policy. Geneva, Switzerland.
iiiIt should also be noted that research shows that family members and peers represent the most significant influence in terms of how people learn to drink, and that often, parents are the first to introduce children to alcohol, inside the home. See: http://www.icap.org/PolicyIssues/YoungPeoplesDrinking/KeyFactsandIssues/tabid/218/Default.aspx.
ivCompiled by the International Center for Alcohol Policies. See: http://icap.org/table/MinimumAgeLimitsWorldwide.
vInternational Center for Alcohol Policies. See: http://www.icap.org/PolicyIssues/YoungPeoplesDrinking/AgeLawsTable/tabid/219/Default.aspx.
viGrant, M & Litvak, J. (Eds.) (1998). Drinking Patterns and Their Consequences. Washington, D.C: Taylor & Francis.
viiClapp, J. D., Voas, R. B., & Lange, J. E. (2001). Cross-border college drinking. Journal of Safety Research, 32, 299–307. See: http://www.pire.org/detail2.asp?core=16804&cms=48.
viiiHoughton, E., & Roche, A.M. (Eds.). (2001). Learning about drinking. New York: Brunner-Routledge. Wagenaar, A.C., & Toomey, T.L. (2002). Effects of minimum drinking age laws: Review and analyses of the literature from 1960 to 2000. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, (Suppl. 14), 206–225. See also: www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/SupportingResearch/Journal/wagenaar.aspx.
ixGrube, J.W. Preventing sales of alcohol to minors: Results from a community trial. Addiction 92 (Suppl. 2): S251-S260, 1997. Lewis, R.K., Paine-Andrews, A., Fawcett, S.B., Francisco, V.T., Richter, K.P., Copple, B. and Copple, J.E. Evaluating the effects of a community coalition's efforts to reduce illegal sales of alcohol and tobacco products to minors. J. Commun. Hlth 21: 429-436, 1996.
xWagenaar, A. C., Toomey, T. L., & Erickson, D. J. (2005). Complying with the minimum drinking age: effects of enforcement and training interventions. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 29, 255–262.
xiUnderage Alcohol Use: Where Do Young People Get Alcohol? National Survey on Drug Use and Health Report (November 2008). See: http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/2k8/underageGetAlc/underageGetAlc.htm.
xiiMonitoring the Future, National Results on Adolescent Drug Use (2008), National Institute on Drug Abuse, U.S, Department of Health and Human Services, Overview of Key Findings, pp. 36-37. See: http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/overview2008.pdf.
xiiiSee: www.Chooseresponsibility.org. See also Associated Press. (2008) College presidents seek drinking age debate. See also: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26271328/.
xivBrief history: In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, effectively setting a national minimum drinking age of 21—which all 50 states adopted by 1987. The legislation was based on the recommendations of a Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving, established to make recommendations intended to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths on the nation’s highways.
xvSee: Alcohol Marketing and Young People, International Center for Alcohol Policies. See: http://icap.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=EkpMOGhCHU8=&tabid=243 See also: http://icap.org/PolicyIssues/Marketing/KeyFactsandIssues/tabid/213/Default.aspx.
Prevention and Education
The primary rationale behind legislating minimum drinking ages is the prevention of certain harms which could result from underage youth consuming alcohol before they are physically or emotionally ready to do so. Yet research shows that imposing legal restrictions on access to beverage alcohol, in and of itself, is not an adequate prevention measure. Key influences such as parents, other family members, peers, educators, and role models contribute to young peoples’ choices about whether or not they decide to drink.i
In efforts to prevent and stop underage drinking, programs have been developed and customized for various audiences, taking into account that influences such as parents, other family members, peers, educators, and role models contribute to young peoples’ choices about whether or not they decide to drink.ii
Most experts agree that parents talking with their children about drinking can play a key role in preventing the negative effects of underage drinking. For example, in the U.S., an ongoing public outreach campaign sponsored by SAMHSA, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Ad Council encourages parents to speak with their children early and often about the negative effects of underage drinking, and offers tips for how to have these discussions.iii For more on this subject, see The Issues Forum entry on Underage Drinking.
A number of intervention approaches have proven to be successful in influencing the decisions that underage youth make about alcohol. Early identification of problem drinking, followed by brief interventions aimed at modifying behavior, can help minimize harm among individuals who are alcohol abusers but not dependent. Such programs range from social norms marketing (aimed at correcting peer misperceptions) to server training programs and life skills programs in schools and communities.iv Examples of such programs from across Europe are summarized in the annual EFRD/CEPS brochure on alcohol industry initiatives developed to help reduce alcohol-related harm (at www.efrd.org). In addition, examples of such efforts in the United States can be found at www.mystrongfamily.com and www.talkaboutalcohol.com.
Responsible Marketing and Ad Placements
There are well-established industry codes for responsible marketing worldwide—codes which comprehensively address the importance of marketing and advertising practices which are directed to only consumers of legal drinking age. These codes include the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) Code of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing and similar codes of responsibility established by The Beer Institute and The Wine Institute, the European Spirits Association (CEPS), the European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD) Common Standards on Commercial Communications, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (DSICA), the Brewers Association of Japan and the Japan Spirits & Liquors Makers Association, and the Portman Group in the United Kingdom.
Two key elements of such codes are industry standards for ad content as well as ad placement. Ad content standards in the U.S. include commitments similar to those found in the Brown-Forman Marketing, Advertising, and Promotional Policy, which specifies that:
Ads should not feature children, cartoon figures, or anything that appeals primarily to persons below the legal drinking age.
There should be no suggestion that alcohol use represents a “rite of passage” to adulthood.
There should be no suggestion that drinking alcohol is a means to attain success.
Models and actors employed must be a minimum of 25-years old, and appear to be at least 21-years old.
The U.S. industry standard for ad placements is a commitment to directing marketing to adults of legal drinking age, and to advertising only in media with audiences that are 70 percent legal drinking age or older.v (Brown-Forman has taken an additional step of planning our placements to deliver total cumulative impressions by brand and by media to average at least an 80 percent LDA audience. For more information, see http://www.brown-forman.com/responsibility/.)
Enforcement and Community
The importance of consistent and visible enforcement of minimum drinking age laws is supported by the research as well as by virtually all stakeholders on record in this arena.vi In addition, as pointed out recently by the World Health Organization, it is vitally important to take into account that “community-based action, with appropriate engagement of different stakeholders, can effectively reduce the harmful use of alcohol” and “….bolster other policy measures at the community level.”vii
The Strong Influence of Parents and Other Family Members
A recent survey commissioned by The Century Council asked teens, 'Where do you get the alcohol that you drink?' Sixty-five percent of the underage youth surveyed said that they got the alcohol they drink from family and friends, meaning they got it from their parents, their friends' parents, older siblings or family members or older friends, with or without permission. Education and prevention programs such as the Century Council’s “Ready or Not” initiative stem from research results such as 97 percent of kids claiming they believe they have enough information to make the right decisions about drinking—yet half of the sixth through 12th graders surveyed reported drinking alcohol within the past month.viii
iHoughton & Roche, 2001.
iiHoughton & Roche, 2001.
ivFor a complete listing of targeted intervention examples worldwide, see: International Center for Alcohol Policies, Blue Book, Module 12. See: http://www.icap.org/Publication/ICAPBlueBook/tabid/148/Default.aspx.
vSince 2006, Brown-Forman media buying plans have been designed to deliver at least 80 percent of total impressions to those LDA and above. See: http://brown-forman.com/responsibility/. For more information generally, see the ICAP Report (#9) on Self-Regulation of Beverage Alcohol Advertising at http://www.icap.org/Publication/ICAPReports/tabid/147/Default.aspx.
viWagenaar, A.C., & Toomey, T.L. (2002).
viiStrategies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, report submitted to the 61st World Health Assembly, March 2008. See: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/events/2008/wha61/issues_paper3/en/index.html.