Further Reading

Why do only 21-year olds drink in America?

Mr. Peele:

I read "The Diseasing of America" a few years ago and found it very stimulating.

I wish to do a little research on so-called underage drinking (today I noticed an essay published in the October 6, 1997 issue of Time magazine on page 112, titled "The New Prohibitionism," written by Charles Krauthammer).

My question is: can you refer me to a researcher who is familiar with pre-Prohibition attitudes concerning the age at which young people were considered old enough to drink?

I'd also like to find a correspondent knowledgeable about current western and eastern European attitudes on the same subject. It seems that many of us hear vague and sporadic anecdotes regarding the much more enlightened view held by Europeans when it comes to educating their young in the responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages. Having not been much of an international traveler myself, I'm at an observational disadvantage here.

Any references and suggestions you can provide would be appreciated.

Thank you.
Eric Brotman

Dear Eric:

On March 23, 1996, The New York Times had a front article, entitled "Louisiana Stands Alone on Drinking at 18." This article could as easily have been titled "The U.S. Stands Alone." For Louisiana joined virtually every Western European and Commonwealth country when its Supreme Court declared 18-year-olds can purchase and drink alcohol.

Australia, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, and Canada allow 18 year olds to consume alcohol on premise, while for France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom the drinking age is 16. Portugal has no official age limit on drinking.

These countries believe that young people who drink in the presence of adults are more likely to adopt moderate drinking habits than if they learn to drink furtively or in college or the armed services, as occurs in the U.S. Although under 21, 40 percent of American high school seniors and college freshman have drunk five or more drinks at a time over the previous two weeks.

Your article told of a large number of traffic fatalities on a Texas road bordering Louisiana that occurred when Louisiana bar owners were allowed to serve young drinkers prior to 1995. The article neglected to mention that the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed evidence showing that in Louisiana itself during this time, 18-20 year-olds consistently had fewer DWIs and alcohol-related accidents and fatalities than those 21-24.

Fatalities in Texas resulted from a discrepancy in the age at which drinking was permitted between the two states, not the Louisiana policy. Restrictive laws first encourage under-21s to search out distant bars, then to get drunk after they drive so far to drink. Based on these data, we could as easily argue that Texas lower its drinking age.


The following exchange was added to this document at October 19, 2003:

Dear Stanton,

You wrote that the legal drinking age in the UK is 16 when it is in fact 18. Just thought I would let you know.


Tim Gloster


But can't 16-year-old children drink with parents in some settings (restaurants)? You can't do that here. Gotta be 21.


Dear Stanton,

Yes, you can drink in a restaurant with a meal at 16. You have to be sitting down at a table though. You have to be 18 to drink at a bar without a meal. It wasn’t that clear in the article.



Dear Tim,

Think of the significance of that -- the concept is to encourage drinking with eating. In the US, drinking is seen as a dangerous activity, and no distinction is made between buying liquor at a store, going to a bar, and having wine or beer with a meal.

Thanks for bringing this to my attention.