Should the Legal Drinking Age be Increased to 21?

Readers Question: Evaluate the case for raising the legal drinking age to 21. Will it be more effective than other methods for reducing the harmful effects of alcohol? 

There are several reasons to be concerned about the over-consumption of alcohol, especially amongst young people. In the UK, abuse of alcohol has contributed to several social, economic and health problems, including:

  • Alcohol related accidents.
  • Health problems
  • Alcohol addiction major cause of family breakdown.
  • According to a report, “Health First: An evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK”. “The personal, social and economic cost of alcohol has been estimated to be up to £55bn per year for England and £7.5bn for Scotland,”
  • Research carried out by Sheffield University for the government shows a 45p minimum would reduce the consumption of alcohol by 4.3%, leading to 2,000 fewer deaths and 66,000 hospital admissions after 10 years. Researchers also claim the number of crimes would drop by 24,000 a year.

From an economic perspective, we say that alcohol is a demerit good.

  1. People may underestimate the personal costs of drinking alcohol to excess (especially amongst young people)
  2. There are external costs to society, e.g. costs of health care, costs of treating accidents, days lost from work. Therefore the social cost of alcohol is greater than the private cost.

These two factors give a justification for government intervention to deal with some issues related to alcohol.  Raising the legal drinking age could help reduce these personal and social costs because it is more difficult to purchase.

Arguments against raising the drinking age to 21

  • At 18, people can vote and are considered adults, so we should allow them to have a personal decision on whether to consume alcohol.
  • Alcohol in moderation isn’t necessarily harmful. Rather than a blanket ban, the government could focus on tackling binge drinking through making alcohol more expensive and tackling the drinking culture.
  • Drinking alcohol is so embedded in the culture, raising the legal age to 21, will make the majority of young people break the law.
  • It will encourage people to find ways to circumnavigate the law. Black market alcohol supplies, which may be harder to monitor.
  • Arguably, there are better ways to deal with problems of alcohol.

Will Raising the drinking age to 21 be effective?

Raising the drinking age to 21 will reduce consumption amongst young people because it will be harder to buy alcohol. Also, young people are the most likely group to misuse alcohol; e.g. drinking to excess, which causes accidents, death and health problems. If people start drinking later in life, they may be more likely to drink in moderation and not get addicted at an early age.

However, it will still be possible for young people to drink at home. People will find ways to avoid the legislation e.g. asking older people to buy alcohol for them. Nevertheless, it will be more difficult. For example, a 16 year old may not be able to get away with drinking in a pub any more. If the age is 18, it is much easier for a 16 or 17 year old to get away with drinking alcohol.

This policy doesn’t address the underlying problem of why people want to drink to excess. For that education may be a better solution; education could  help to explain the dangers of excess drinking and therefore encourage young people to drink moderation.. However, previous education policies have not seemed to be very effective. Young people don’t want to hear lectures from the government about the dangers of alcohol.

Other Solutions

Higher taxes increase the cost of alcohol and may have a significant effect in reducing demand amongst young people, who have lower disposable incomes.  If demand is reduced by say 20% this may reduce many of the problems of over-consumption. This policy also raises revenue for the government. But, on the other hand, it may increase the incentive to import low duty alcohol from abroad. Demand for alcohol may also be inelastic and not effective in stopping consumption.

See also: Tax on alcohol

Minimum price for alcohol – pros and cons

In practise there is very little that the government can do to change social and individual attitudes to alcohol, which is the root cause of most alcohol abuse.

In the US the legal drinking age is 21. They still have many alcohol related problems, but, it is significantly more difficult for young people to regularly drink alcohol.

What do you think – should alcohol be illegal for under 21s?

109 thoughts on “Should the Legal Drinking Age be Increased to 21?

  1. I’m an American and I say the UK should keep it at 18. I remember when I was 18 and I was told that I was now old enough to get drafted into military service yet if I drank a beer I’d get arrested. This made very angry at the time and only made me want to drink more. I’m 35 now and I still feel strongly about this!! People always want what they cannot have, especially with young people.

    Sadly the right wing anti-alcohol lobby in the US don’t see it that way.

    If you are old enough to join the armed forces where you can fight kill or be killed for your country in a warzone then you are old enough to have a drink!!!

  2. Hey Yo…..I agree with the legal age 21…cuz its like the proper age for alcohol tolerance….but the maturity thing….maturity come to us at what ever age it is that we learn responsibility….its like a rise of passage….yea

  3. This may be true but if they do increase it were i live. I know from my own experience. I live in north battleford and i drink every day when i get home. I dont go over board though. I have a few beers then i watch TV. if it was my choice i would say leave the drinking age at what it is now and put a blower in every car and have check points all over town. If they raise it then their will just be more underage drinking

    1. The thing is if they are trying to change the age to 25, because they think it will be better no it wont people that already doing it while they are 21 they are going to keep sneaking and doing it no one is going to stop just because of a change age decision people are dumb i just turned 21 on the 8th of june and i drunk a couple times and they better not even change that or i will keep still drinking just to piss them off!

  4. Raising the legal drinking age will not help in the slightest. It wont have any effect whatsoever. Young teenagers will still drink because the alcohol will still be provided for them by their parents at home and bought in for them if they want to have a party. Those who are closer to the legal drinking age will still go out drinking in clubs and pubs using an elder friend or siblings ID (which that person is quite happy for them to do ) just like they do now. A rise in the legal drinking age will just mean 18-20 year olds will be carrying on with these habits and well have a rise in the amount of law breaking there is.

    On a different note there would be a large amount of protest over the fact that 18 year olds are adults in the eyes of the law and can do everything else so why not drink. We would have a situation like the US had during prohibition with rises in illegal alcohol production, importation and consumption. If you want to compare the UK to the US the legal adult is 21 in the US so all the things we do at 18 they do at 21. But there is still under age drinking the US.

    Parents cause a lot of this by going out getting drunk regularly and encouraging their children to drink. They buy alcohol for them and encourage them to drink irresponsibly like current 18-20 year olds do in clubs at house parties. Or they go the other way and ban alcohol completely which makes teenagers more likely to rebel and drink because it is this magical amazing thing which they’ve never been allowed before. Schools also don start covering it till kids are 14 at which point they’re already drinking and the main thing schools use to warn against it is unwanted pregnancy lack of memory and acting silly. This doesn’t help cos kids think the acting silly is funny and they don’t care about the lack of memory or the pregnancy so the talk is more or less useless. why doesn’t the government look at that and try and sort that first

  5. hi my name is jess and I am currently a college student and I am wondering if any of you would be interested in giving me some facts and reasons towards why you think it should or should not be put up to 21 so I can use it in my speaking and listening exam

  6. I think this would be stupid and pointless,
    It really annoys me how people think all teenagers are irresponsible, some are reckless without alcohol.
    At 18 I am a nursing student and have a lot of responsabillities, I enjoy a social drink with friends, I don’t drink to get drunk. Drinking is a part of UK culture and not all of us abuse drink.
    Most people commenting that they think its a good idea are probably in their 30’s and putting all young people in one negative box, how would you feel if your freedom was taken from you, its not about binge drinking its about saying lets go for a drink or go to a club and have a dance, raising the age to 21 will not help it will strip people of thier freedom the ability to socialise if they want to.
    I have been drinking since age 15 and gained great GCSE’s, an excellent BTEC award and I am now studying a degree so to make out that drinking will ruin your life is dramatic and completely untrue.

  7. In my opinion, due to the fact that abuse of alcohol has contributed to several social, economic and health problems, the legal drinking age should be increased to 21.

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