Thirty years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan signed the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law. Passed by Congress at the encouragement of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the law made it illegal for teens and young adults under the age of 21 to consume alcohol.
According to MADD, who celebrated the anniversary of its first major achievement in combating underage drinking and impaired driving on July 17, the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law has saved over 25,000 lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further reports that the law has decreased drunk driving crashes among underage youth by 16%.
But why 21? The age of 21 was chosen as the legal minimum drinking age after decades of research showing that young people react differently to alcohol. Not only do teens get drunk twice as fast as adults, but they have a harder time knowing when to stop, according to MADD. The result? Underage drinkers consume more alcoholic drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers, according to the CDC. In fact, more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by underage youth between the ages of 12 and 20 in the U.S. is consumed in the form of binge drinks.
MADD further explains that the human brain continues to develop into a person’s early 20s. Alcohol consumption during brain development can damage both short and long-term brain growth, resulting in both short term and lifelong effects. A legal drinking age of 21, however, reduces traffic crashes, protects teens’ and young adults’ developing brains, and keeps teens safer overall.
Despite the number of lives the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law has saved, underage drinking continues to contribute to more than 4,300 fatalities among underage youth under the age of 21 each year, according to the CDC. As leading influencers on teens’ decision to drink, parents can help further prevent underage drinking and its dangerous consequences by having an open, ongoing conversation with teens and underage adults about alcohol. In fact, MADD found that teens whose parents make it clear that underage drinking is completely unacceptable are more than 80% less likely to drink than teens who receive any other message.