Myths and Facts

Myths and Facts About The 21 Minimum Drinking Age

Myth: Shouldn’t MADD focus more on drunk driving prevention with teens instead or innocent underage drinking?

Kids who start drinking young are seven times more likely to be in an alcohol-related crash.  MADD knows that by preventing underage drinking today, we can end drunk driving tomorrow.


Hingson, Ralph, et al. “Age of Drinking Onset, Driving After Drinking, and Involvement in Alcohol-Related Motor Vehicle Crashes.” DOT HS 809 188. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, January 2001.

Myth: Alcohol is not that big of a deal anymore. Shouldn’t I be more worried about other more dangerous drugs?

Teen alcohol use kills 4,300 people each year – that’s more than all illegal drugs combined.


Sacks JJ, Gonzales KR, Bouchery EE, Tomedi LE, Brewer RD. 2010 National and State Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Am J Prev Med 2015; 49(5):e73–e79.

Myth: Europeans let their kids drink at an early age, yet they do not have the alcohol-related problems we do.

Actually, in Europe, young people have higher intoxication rates than in the United States, and less than a quarter had lower or equivalent rates to the United States. Also, a greater percentage of young people in a majority of Europe report binge drinking at higher rates then compared to their US counterparts. 1-2 Most European youth have higher rates of alcohol-related problems because of their heavy drinking.


Perhaps the best example of fact versus myth is what happened in New Zealand. In 1999, New Zealand lowered its purchase age from 20 to 18. Not only did drunk driving crashes increase, but youth started to drink earlier, binge drinking escalated, and in the 12 months following the decrease in legal drinking age, there was a 50 percent increase in intoxicated 18- and 19-year-old patients at the Auckland Hospital emergency room.3


1. The ESPAD Report 2003.  Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries.  Published 2004. Read excerpts here.

2. Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2004). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2003 (NIH Publication No. 04-5506). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Read the overview here.

3. Kyrpi, Kypros, et al.  “Minimum Purchasing Age for Alcohol and Traffic Crash Injuries Among 15- to 19-Year-Olds in New Zealand.” American Journal of Public Health, January 2006, Voi 96, No. 1.  Read the study here.

Myth: The law only makes youth want to drink because it’s a “forbidden fruit.”

When the “forbidden fruit” is no longer forbidden, youth simply drink more. In states where the drinking age was 18, young people drank more than in states where the minimum drinking age was 21.  They continued to drink more as adults in their early 20s.4


4. Maisto, S.A., & Rachal, J.V. (1980). Indications of the relationship between adolescent drinking practices, related behaviors, and drinking age law: An examination of data from a national sample. In H.
Wechsler (Ed.), Minimum drinking age laws: An evaluation (pp. 155-176). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co.

Myth: Lowering the drinking age will encourage young people to be responsible consumers rather than drink at uncontrolled, private parties.

Many youth drink with the goal to get drunk. They are not “wired” in the brain to assess risk and to be responsible when it comes to risky behavior. There is no class or situation that will prompt a teen to drink responsibly when alcohol flows freely.

Myth: Drinking is just a phase all kids go through; they’ll grow out of it.

Actually, many don’t.  In fact, the earlier someone begins drinking, the more likely they are to be alcohol dependent in later life.  More than 40 percent of individuals who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.5  Ninety-five percent of the 14 million people who are alcohol dependent began drinking before the legal age of 21.6


5. Grant, Bridgett and Deborah Dawson. “Age at Onset of Alcohol Use and Its Association with DSM-IV Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.” Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey.  Journal of Substance Abuse 9 (1997): 103-110.

6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Alcohol Dependence or Abuse and Age at First Use.” Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Applied Studies, October 22, 2004. Read the full study here.

Myth: If I’m old enough to go to war, I should be old enough to drink.

21 is the minimum age because a person’s brain does not stop developing until his or her early to mid-20s. Drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can lead to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory.


Alcohol use by those under 21 is also related to numerous health problems including injuries and death resulting from alcohol poisoning, car crashes, suicide, homicide, assaults, drowning and recreational mishaps. Not to mention that the early onset of drinking by youth significantly increases the risk of future health problems such as addiction.


Regardless of a person’s profession, underage drinking is still dangerous and unsafe. It is a fact based on biology not maturity or service to our country.


How alcohol affects brain:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Alcohol Dependence or Abuse and Age at First Use.” Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Applied Studies, October 22, 2004. Read the full study here.

Myth: MADD says kids shouldn’t have access to marijuana, but marijuana isn't as bad as alcohol, I mean at least it is not addictive.

Marijuana is very addictive!  In fact in 2016 over 4 million people were diagnosed with substance use disorder due to marijuana use.  Marijuana that is produced and sold not has a much higher content of THC than what was seen on the market in the 60’s and 70’s.  Just like with alcohol, the young brain is not ready to protect teens against drugs like marijuana and alcohol.


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. SMA 17-5044, NSDUH Series H-52). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from
Citation: NIDA. Marijuana. National Institute on Drug Abuse website. August 1, 2017.




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