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 It was repealed by the 21st amendment — and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 drink. 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 Drivers.” 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 interference.” “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 dollars. 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 pairing. 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!” “Kachow!” 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.

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