Why the US drinking age is 21

“Michael, welcome to the White House.”

This is the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and Michael Joseph Jackson.

1984 Michael Jackson.

“For Michael Jackson brings a thrill a minute to his millions of fan.”

“We have quite a few young folks in the White House who all wanted me to give you

the same message - they said to tell Michael, please give some TLC to the PYTs.”

So this is not just a footnote in history.

It actually connects, in a weird way, to the reason that you have to be 21 in every state

in the United States to buy alcohol.

I’ll show you.

States determine their own minimum legal drinking ages, and in 1975, they looked like this.

All these blue states are at 18.

All these green ones are 19.

Delaware’s yellow, alone at 20.

These orange ones are 21, but with allowances for lower alcohol levels in stuff like beer

and wine.

And these red ones are the 21 and older states.

It’s a complicated map.

Now look at the map today.

It’s all 21 How did that change happen?

This story takes you to a political crossroads, and the Supreme Court, and, in a weird way,

to Michael Jackson shaking hands next to the president, while dressed like this.

But the drinking age change is ultimately a story...about roads.

Prohibition, the 18th amendment to the US Constitution, banned alcohol in 1920.

It was repealed by the 21st amendment — and after that, a lot of states settled on a drinking

age of 21 and older.

See the red here, in the late 60s?

Those are all 21 and older states.

In the 70s, the 26th amendment changed the dynamic again.

“That amendment, as you know, provides for the right to vote of all of our young people

between 18 and 21, 11 million new voters as a result of this amendment.”

18 year olds could be drafted to Vietnam and vote, so a lot of states decided they could


That map was short lived for one reason.

“And here comes the President.”

“Nearly 50,000 people were killed on our highways last year.

Now out of that statistic comes an even more chilling one.

Drunk drivers were involved in 25,000 of those fatalities, in addition to 750,000 injuries

a year.”

Drinking age reform advocates quickly attributed drunk driving fatalities in the blue states,

or 18 and older states, to earlier drinking ages.

People argued that teens driving across state lines to drink or purchase alcohol increased

drunk driving.

This 1983 map was still a hodgepodge, but see how more states turned green — for 19

— and yellow — for 20 years old?

That was driven partly by an awareness campaign.

“Thank you very much, Mr. President.”

Michael Jackson?

He was being honored for letting his music be used in anti-drunk driving PSAs.

“You’re as good as dead.”

But tactics weren’t limited to PR.

President Reagan is famous for saying: “The nine most terrifying words in the English

language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

That made his strategy kind of surprising.

“For even though drunk driving is a problem nation-wide, it can only be solved at the

state and local level.

Yet the Federal Government also has a role to play.”

His thinking was influenced by two main groups.

“Much of the credit for focusing public attention goes to the grassroots campaign

of organizations like MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and RID, Remove Intoxicated


Candace “Candy” Lightner founded MADD in 1980 after her daughter Cari was killed

by a drunk driver.

MADD’s goals at the time included making it easier to obtain DUI convictions... and

raising the drinking age.

This direction was clear at River Dell High School in Oradell, New Jersey, where President

Reagan explained his unpredictable political evolution.

The problem: “I appointed a Presidential Commission on

Drunk Driving.

They told us that alcohol related automobile accidents are the leading cause of teenage

deaths in this country.”

The theory: “In states in which the drinking age has

been raised, teenage drinking fatalities have gone down significantly.

Here in New Jersey, you raised the drinking age to 21 in 1983, and you know what happened:

you had a 26% reduction in nighttime single vehicle fatalities among 19 and 20 year olds

in the first year alone.”

The dilemma: “I was delighted again because I hoped that

the states would, as they should, take this action themselves without federal orders or


“It’s led to a kind of crazy quilt of different state drinking laws, and that’s

led to what’s been called blood borders, with teenagers leaving their home to go the

nearest state with a lower drinking age.”

And here?

This is where the roads come in.

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 created a network of roads largely funded by Federal


Those roads quickly became crucial to state economies.

That money also became a way to bend the states to Federal priorities, even if it meant Reagan

had to change his typical political positions.

“I’ve decided to support legislation to withhold 5% of a state’s highway funds if

it does not enact the 21-year-old drinking age.

Some may feel that my decision is at odds with my philosophical viewpoint that state

problems should involve state solutions, and it isn’t up to a big and overwhelming government

in Washington to tell the states what to do.

And you’re partly right.

Beyond that, there are some special cases in which overwhelming need can be dealt with

by prudent and limited federal action.”

The law passed.

That’s Candy Lightner, celebrating.

“I’d like to make you an honorary mother against drunk drivers.”

It wasn’t technically a nationwide drinking age law, but in effect — it was.

“We have no misgiving about this judicious use of Federal power.”

States quickly adopted the 21-year-old drinking age.

Most couldn't afford to lose federal funding for their highways.

Louisiana was the only state that held out at age 18 (due to a loophole, which it closed

in the mid 90s).

South Dakota challenged the law to preserve sale of low alcohol beer for 19 year olds

and up, and it reached the Supreme Court.

“You may proceed whenever you’re ready.”

“Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court, the issue in this case is whether or

not Congress may condition the receipt of highway funds upon a state having in effect

21-year-old drinking age.”

The court ruled 7-2, stating it was within Congress’s powers to control spending that

promoted “general welfare,” argued as the reduction of youth drinking and driving

via the 21-year-old drinking age.

Did it work?

Most studies of studies declare “case closed” — that the higher drinking age saves lives,

and “reduces alcohol consumption.”

Skeptics, like people from the libertarian Cato Institute, claim a broader cultural change,

not a law, should be credited with saving lives.

Reagan himself kind of argued both sides, saying that, “the new minimum drinking age

is working,” but that “my friends, there’s so much more to do, and it’s not government

that can do it.”

Politically, Ronald Reagan using Federal purse strings to strong arm states is…a strange


But beyond the politics, there’s a bigger message.

The Federal government has used other levers to push states, but to change the drinking

age there was one big tool.

The thing that changed the country wasn’t just the lines on states’ edges.

It was the ones that run through them.

Alright, that’s it for this road trip edition of Almanac.

I’m about to reveal what the theme for the next edition is gonna be, but first I want

to read some comments from the last video all about Route 66.

“People born in the 20th century: the reasons in this video.

2000s kids: Ka-Chow!”


So many Cars comments.

“That warning at 1:00 is basically TLDR; hey tourists, wild donkeys kick.”

Alright, that’s it for this edition of Almanac.

In the next one, I’m gonna be looking at the big ideas that completely changed movies

— and had nothing to do with Hollywood.