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 is a 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 price 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:

In practice, 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?

89 thoughts on “Should the Legal Drinking Age be increased to 21?”

  1. No it should stay at 18. Raising the drinking age will just make it forbidden fruit among teens. Its human nature to want what we cannot have, especially among teens.

    Anyone old enough to go to war and die for their country is certainly old enough to have a drink.

    • Simply allow active soldiers aged 18-20 to drink alcohol on military bases. The last miltary draft was 40 years ago, back when baby car seats and bike helmets weren’t required.

  2. The Legal age should go up in the United Kingdom (UK) to 21, and also up the prices!, its so wrong seeing kids from the age of 10 drinking and street corners!, how do they get hold of it?, because its so cheap and people will buy it for them! we have to make sure the age goes up!, and make youngsters more aware of the affects from alcohol, and if children are drinking the perents should get prosecuted ether find or evan jail!, sort it out UK!, by the way i am 17 almost 18!, and I am completely against alchohol.

    • i dont think that the parents should be fined as some kids are rebelious and will just drink without the parents knowing

  3. Drinking age should stay at 18. I read an online report from the USA saying “An 18-year-old MAN” was arrested for underage drinking. Emphasis on the word MAN. 18 is the legal age to vote, smoke, drive, marry and be called an adult so therefore should be able to legally drink alcohol at 18. Those who think it should be 21, what do you say to that? At 18 a person is considered a man or woman by wouldn’t be able to legally drink? Arseholes

    • That’s in America. Their legal drinking age is 21, so therefore he is underage.
      Also voting, smoking and the able to marry someone shouldn’t effect their legal age to drink.

  4. Hi, I’ve just recently turned 18 and I live in the UK. If I’m honest, I believe that the drinking age should be, in fact, lowered and moderated, like in countries such as Switzerland and Germany. Their policy is that anyone over the age of 16 can buy beer and wine, but they have to wait until the age of 18 to buy any straight liqueurs, spirits or even ‘alco-pops’, so that people begin to appreciate the adult culture of drinking before being able buy more ‘harsh’ substances such as vodka. This then diminishes children from being rebellious and drinking harsh chemicals that could seriously affect their well-being, and they then learn to use alcohol sensibly using more traditional beverages.
    Another point would be that teenagers in the UK are very defiant and strong willed, and raising the drinking age would only further the problem of under-age drinking, as teenagers will see this as an opportunity to ‘mess with the system’.
    This next point is pretty controversial, but hear me out. I believe that drinking at a younger age prevents a person from becoming ‘Drunk and Disorderly’ or an Alcoholic later in life. The reason? Because people have longer to understand the drug, and are able to work out for themselves how their body reacts to it. I would rather start drinking at 16 (as I did) and be able to manage the drug at 18-20, than drink for the first time at 18 and get that out of control that I ended up in hospital having my stomach pumped. I know this is just an opinion, but it has worked for me, as I am now 18, and I am VERY aware of how my body handles alcohol, and I do not drink strong spirits such as vodka or gin. Compared to a lot of other people I know, who did not drink until 18, I am a lot more sensible when it comes to alcohol intake.

    • hey man you sound like a cool mature guy the only problem with your solution is that some people aren’t as mature and will want to look cool in front of their friends and call themselves a ‘heavyweight’.

  5. Even if you increase the legal drinking age, I think it will have little effect. Many teens are drinking even if they are not yet at the right age. So, what’s the real problem? It’s the price. Alcoholic drinks are so cheap that the young ones can easily afford to buy. They can also decrease alcohol concentrations to lessen its effect. Alcohol and substance abuse can be prevented if we only have better ways to do so. For addiction treatment, you can visit

  6. 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!!!

  7. 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


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