Technically, this should be an article on a blog titled “Things Asked By One Of My Son’s Friends”. Here’s what happened. We had three couples and a total of five children out seeing the sites in downtown Cincinnati, and we all stopped for dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery. The child who asked was intrigued by the single glass of wine her mother ordered. And why not, honestly? Wine looks tasty, and it comes in a cool-looking glass. It’s tailor-made to attract a child’s attention. Especially if you tell the child that she can’t have any.
She thinks about that for a moment while hovering over the glass and staring down at the wine, then looks at her dad. “Why,” she asks, “can’t I have mom’s wine?” I thought it was a good question. So, even though it’s not a question asked by my son, I think I’ll try to answer it.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act
At present, the reason that an eight-year-old can’t have mom’s wine is because of a federal regulation. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act doesn’t force the states to enact a legal drinking age of 21 years old, but it pushes them hard to do so. By hitting the states in the wallet:
(a) Withholding of Funds for Noncompliance.
(1) In general. The Secretary shall withhold 10 per centum of the amount required to be apportioned to any State under each of sections 104(b)(1), 104(b)(3), and 104(b)(4) of this title on the first day of each fiscal year after the second fiscal year beginning after September 30, 1985, in which the purchase or public possession in such State of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than twenty-one years of age is lawful.
(2) State grandfather law as complying. If, before the later of (A) October 1, 1986, or (B) the tenth day following the last day of the first session the legislature of a State convenes after the date of the enactment of this paragraph, such State has in effect a law which makes unlawful the purchase and public possession in such State of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than 21 years of age (other than any person who is 18 years of age or older on the day preceding the effective date of such law and at such time could lawfully purchase or publicly possess any alcoholic beverage in such State), such State shall be deemed to be in compliance with paragraph (1) in each fiscal year in which such law is in effect.
(b) Effect of Withholding of Funds. No funds withheld under this section from apportionment to any State after September 30, 1988, shall be available for apportionment to that State.
(c) Alcoholic Beverage Defined. As used in this section, the term “alcoholic beverage” means:
(1) beer as defined in section 5052(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986,
(2) wine of not less than one-half of 1 per centum of alcohol by volume, or
(3) distilled spirits as defined in section 5002(a)(8) of such Code.
The withheld funds are Federal Highway Trust Funds, which are used to fund road construction and repair. So the states didn’t have to comply, but they’d have to shoulder a greater percentage of the cost of upkeep and construction on the interstates. Unsurprisingly, all of the states increased their drinking age.
Why 21 Years Old?
It seems that tradition, as much as anything else, is the reason the drinking age is set at 21. Well, that and the NMDAA. Here’s what the Alcohol Policy Information System has to say on the subject:
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.
LegalFlip.com expands on this:
Prior to passing NMDAA of 1984, there were many studies conducted on the effects of alcohol on younger people. Several studies determined that a youth’s brain is not fully developed until around age 21, and alcohol affects youth’s brains differently than it does adults. In addition, many special interest groups promoted NMDAA. Perhaps the most influential special interest group for NMDAA was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD claims that the higher minimum legal drinking age has saved thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of lives.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that there are exceptions to the minimum drinking age laws. The Federal Trade Commission has links to those exceptions for each state. Those exceptions are repetitive and time consuming, so I won’t try to list them all here. I will note that Ohio permits a parent, guardian, or spouse to give alcohol to a minor and allow them to drink it. So really, in this case, the reason that my friend’s daughter couldn’t have mom’s wine was because mom and dad said “no”.