Policy Resources

Overview of Underage Drinking Policy in the United States

The following is an excerpt from the Alcohol Policy Information System, on the state of underage drinking policy in the US.

Protecting Young People

State laws restricting access to alcoholic beverages by young people were first enacted early in the 20th century.  These laws prohibited sales of alcohol to young people but did not directly prohibit consumption of alcoholic beverages by young people or provision of alcohol to youth by adults. Underage drinking policies in the United States have become more restrictive over time.

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1919, prohibited the sale of all intoxicating liquors in the United States, superseding State laws on the sale of alcoholic beverages to young people.  Following the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933, restrictions on possession and consumption of alcoholic beverages by youth and non-commercial provision of alcohol to youth by adults became the norm.  Most States applied these restrictions to those under the age of 21, making the minimum legal drinking age the same as the minimum age then required for voting in Federal elections.[1].

Between 1970 and 1975, 29 States lowered their minimum drinking ages from 21 to 18, 19, or 20, following the enactment of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted 18- to 20- year-olds the right to vote.  In the 1980s, States began to return the minimum drinking age to 21.  This reversal reflected both increased public concern about underage drinking and research findings linking lower minimum drinking ages with increases in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.[2].

In 1984, Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which remains in effect. This law requires that a portion of Federal highway funds be withheld from any States that do not prohibit persons under 21 years of age from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1987 that Congress was within constitutional bounds in attaching such conditions to the receipt of Federal funds to encourage uniformity in States’ drinking ages.[3] By 1988, every State had passed legislation to meet the Federal funding requirements.

In 2006, Congress enacted The Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking (STOP) Act which authorized $18 million in federal funds to combat underage drinking. Provisions of the Act include: enhancement of an interagency committee to coordinate efforts by Federal agencies to address the issue; annual reporting to Congress about State level efforts to combat underage drinking, including annual state report cards; a national media campaign aimed at adults; assessments of youth exposure to media messages; increased resources for community collaboratives to enhance prevention efforts; and funding for new research on underage drinking, including short- and long-term effects on adolescent brain development.

In March of 2007, the Acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth P. Moritsugu unveiled a Call to Action on Underage Drinking. Developed in collaboration with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Call to Action identifies six goals to be achieved by government, school officials, parents, other adults, and young people.

These goals include:

(1) facilitating healthy adolescent development and preventing and reducing underage drinking;

(2) engaging parents, schools, communities, government, social systems, and youth in a national effort to prevent and reduce underage drinking and its consequences;

(3) promoting understanding of underage drinking across individual adolescent characteristics as well as across environmental, ethnic, cultural, and gender differences;

(4) conducting research on adolescent alcohol use and its consequences;

(5) improving public health monitoring of underage drinking and underage drinking policies; and

(6) promoting policy consistency across levels of government.

The Call to Action and related materials are available at www.surgeongeneral.gov.

Although all States prohibit minors (a term widely used in this context to refer to persons under the age of 21) from possessing  and, in most cases, purchasing and consuming alcoholic beverages, and prohibit adults from furnishing alcoholic beverages to minors, these prohibitions are subject to a number of exceptions that vary from State to State.  These exceptions can be seen in the information presented for the eleven APIS policy topics relevant to Underage Drinking.

In addition to minimum drinking age laws, States have adopted a variety of policies to address underage drinking. Some of these policies apply to youth directly, e.g., using false identification to purchase alcohol, loss of driving privileges for alcohol violations by minors(“use/lose” laws ), and lower blood alcohol concentration levels for drivers under 21 (“zero-tolerance laws “). Other policies include minimum ages for both alcohol sellers and for servers and bartenders , keg registration requirements, and criminal penalties for hosting underage parties .

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) notes that these and other underage drinking strategies demonstrate a broad societal commitment to reduce underage drinking. The IOM further notes that “the effectiveness of laws to restrict access to alcohol by youths can be increased by closing gaps in coverage, promoting compliance, and strengthening enforcement.”[4]


[1] Mosher, J., The history of youthful-drinking laws: Implications for current policy. In: Wechsler, H. ed. Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws: An Evaluation, Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1980. pp. 11-38.

[2] Wagenaar, A. Research affects public policy: The case of the legal drinking age in the United States.  Addiction 88 (Supplement): 75S-81S, 1993.

[3]  South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987).

[4]  National Research Council Institute of Medicine. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 2003.

The Centers for Disease Control’s Community Guide on Preventing Excessive Alcohol Consumption

From the CDC, CAMY and CADCA comes an excellent resource for individuals seeking information on public health approaches to preventing underage and excessive drinking. The Community Guide presents research and recommends best practice approaches on such alcohol policy issues as reducing alcohol outlet density, increasing alcohol taxes and maintaining alcohol control systems. The Community Guide offers guidelines and approaches for implementing these and other research-based practices for preventing underage drinking and excessive alcohol use in your community.

You can visit the CDC’s Community Guide at:http://www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/index.html

The General Assembly is located in Raleigh and is the state legislative body for North Carolina.  With representation from all sectors of North Carolina this bi-cameral legislature works with the North Carolina Governor to pass state laws.  NCGA.state.us is a site that tracks legislation in both the North Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate.


The Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) is an online resource that provides detailed information on a wide variety of alcohol-related policies in the United States at both State and Federal levels. It features compilations and analyses of alcohol-related statutes and regulations. Designed primarily as a tool for researchers, APIS simplifies the process of ascertaining the state of the law for studies on the effects and effectiveness of alcohol-related policies.

The principal research tools on this Web site are 36 sets of comparison tables and supporting materials for selected alcohol policies. The items listed below are available for each of these APIS policy topics.

Link to state profiles of laws pertaining to underage drinking:

Underage drinking is one of the key alcohol policy topics, for additional information on underage drinking policy please visit the following page:http://www.alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/UnderageDrinking.html

MADD is a 501(c)(3) non-profit grass roots organization with more than 400 entities nationwide. MADD is not a crusade against alcohol consumption – MADD’s mission is to stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking.

Link to the Statistics & Resources Center. Here you’ll find the latest stats on the impact of drunk driving, plus a wealth of information on DWI/DUI laws, underage drinking research, drunk driving research, and other issues: http://www.madd.org/statistics/

Follow this link for information about the North Carolina chapter of MADD:http://www.madd.org/local-offices/nc/

OLPA offers a list of legislation, introduced during current or historical congressional sessions, relevant to the National Institutes of Health. Amongst the relevant legislation are initiatives to reduce and prevent underage drinking. The information listed in the link below contains the bill number, the bill title and an OLPA bill summary.