Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Legal Drinking Age Promotes Underage Drinking-A Critique of the Minimum Drinking Age Act– Julie Carnevale


Underage drinking is an increasing problem in the United States. The majority of adolescents under the age of 21 have consumed an alcoholic beverage before they graduate high school. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the average age that teens have their first drink is 14 and the research shows the more they drink before the age of 15, the greater the risk of becoming dependent on alcohol (1). The most significant consequence of underage drinking is that it is associated with automobile crashes, homicides, and suicides, which are the leading causes of death for 15 to 24 year olds (2). The risk of death due to alcohol among the nation’s youth was the reason behind enacting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (3). This policy required all US states to increase the minimum age at which people could purchase alcohol from 18 to 21 years or else federal funding for highways would be decreased (4). According to the United States Department of Transportation report from 2002, the Minimum Drinking Age Act has reduced the number of motor vehicle fatalities among minors by 13% (11). The law is a success for saving the lives of thousands of adolescents, but it did not address the underlying problem of why adolescents consume alcohol. In fact, creating a law that sets a legal age for drinking alcohol promotes underage drinking by incorrectly applying the Theory of Reasoned Action and not taking into account the adolescent behaviors and beliefs which make alcohol consumption more appealing to minors.

The Theory of Reasoned Action

Researchers have shown that society has a significant impact on a youth’s behavior. Parents and other role models influence adolescents at a young age. Children from homes where parents openly consume alcohol and show favorable attitudes towards the behavior have an increased likelihood of drinking alcohol at a younger age (12). Research has shown that the media ads that depict alcohol in a favorable way gives positive attitudes about drinking to adolescents (1). Peer pressure, the desire to fit in, and the norms of the group have also been associated with underage drinking (2). Adolescents typically believe that if everyone else is doing something, then they should be doing it as well. This holds true for underage drinking.

The Theory of Reasoned Action states that the intention to change the behavior is based on attitudes towards the behavior and perceived norms of the behavior. In the literature review by Salazar, she reported the importance influence has on behavior. She reports that, “the most important determinants [on behavior] are the participants’ personal feelings (attitude) and the perceived social pressure (subjective norm)” (7).

According to one researcher, this theory suggests that people will do the behavior they think they should, based on the norms in society (7). In the case of underage drinking, the attitudes and norms that lawmakers want to impress upon young people is that underage drinking is wrong and illegal. The purpose of the law was to reduce alcohol related fatalities and to delay underage drinking for as long as possible (3). The government’s hope is that by making underage drinking illegal, society will accept the policy and transform the attitudes about the behavior to be the same as theirs (3). This coercive intervention is not working because adolescents are more influenced by environmental factors, including peer influence and social norms, than by the government telling them what to do. Teenagers are at a time in their lives where they want more freedom to make their own decisions. Most teens do not listen to the rules their parents put in place; it is a more daunting task to get teens to follow the law.

Minors, unlike the authorities, do not believe that drinking alcohol is wrong; they view drinking alcohol as what their friends are doing and therefore they should be doing it as well because that is the norm for their peers. A study conducted by researchers in Australia surveyed college students to determine the main reason why they engage in drinking alcohol. Their results were consistent with the Theory of Reasoned Action. The researchers found that the students’ “intentions to drink alcohol were predicted by their past behavior as well as their perceptions as what important others think they should do,” (6). The students’ actions were based mostly on the social norms of college students which would be that drinking alcohol is the fun and popular thing to do. The intentions of many adolescents are to do what their peers believe is the norm behavior, not what the government deems as acceptable behavior.

The government is using scare tactics and legal jargon in attempt to coerce minors to not consume alcoholic beverages. They are not taking into account the enormous influence that peers and society have on underage adolescents. It is clear based on the literature that adolescents are greatly influenced by the Theory of Reasoned Action; however the government is not addressing this theory appropriately in their hopes to prevent underage drinking by enforcing the Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Drinking is a “Cool” and Risky Behavior

In addition to not considering peer pressure in passing the Minimum Drinking Age Act, the government did not consider the fact that adolescents tend to seek out behaviors that are forbidden and risky. The prohibitive law does not reduce or prevent alcohol consumption by minors because making something illegal makes them want to do it more. Underage drinking is often perceived as being “cool” to minors because it is illegal and “forbidden”; therefore they have a stronger desire to drink. Some adolescents seek out the illegal behavior for the purpose of sensation seeking. Sensation seeking is “a need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experiences" (9). Many minors get this sensation feeling by acting out against the law and performing illegal acts, such as smoking and drinking (3). A study surveying 8th and 9th asked what kids their age do for fun. The majority of the females in the group responded with “rule breaking” as the activity they do for amusement (9). This is a serious problem that young teens believe that drinking alcohol is a fun-filled event. What may be even worse is not having any idea why one might consume alcohol. College students usually cannot provide a reason for drinking other than it “is often so routine that people find it difficult to explain why they do it,” (13). Underage drinking is a risky behavior that is exacerbated when it is done for the thrill of it or for no reason at all.

Research has shown that adolescents are not concerned about their own health and well-being, and thus they make poor judgments regarding the risks they take (3). Despite the reasons for enacting the Minimum Drinking Age Act, many adolescents do not perceive that they are susceptible to the risks of underage drinking, including legal action and physical harm that may occur to them (5). One study found that the more an adolescent participates in a risky behavior without any negative consequences, the more they believe they are not susceptible to harmful outcomes for that behavior (3). This implies that if a minor drinks alcohol many times without negative consequences, he or she will continue to drink because they think they are invincible to the negative effects of alcohol. It is clear based on all of the research that the Minimum Drinking Age Act has reduced the number of fatalities of minors caused by drinking and driving, which was the main focus of the law (3, 8). A second goal of the policy aimed of delaying underage alcohol use by setting the legal drinking age to 21 (3). It is with this aim that the law has not succeeded. Instituting a law that prohibits underage drinking makes alcohol consumption more appealing to those who are sensation seekers and those who want to fit in with their peers. Underage drinking law needs to be supplemented with programs that focus on the real reasons why adolescents consume alcohol. In order to reduce or prevent underage drinking, the government needs to do more than provide a scare tactic (of making drinking illegal).


There have been numerous attempts to prevent underage drinking. There are two basic types of intervention programs. Environmental based programs usually revolve around limiting the access to alcohol. Interventions may include increasing the price of alcohol and stricter enforcement of the law (1). Individual based intervention programs focus more on alcohol education provided by schools and families (1). These intervention strategies can be successful if they focus on the social norms and pressures that adolescents are confronted with everyday.

Government, private organizations, and the alcohol industry often use advertising to persuade minors to not drink alcohol. Unfortunately, many of these messages only tell minors to not drink alcohol if you are under 21 years of age. Many researchers have analyzed public service announcements (PSAs) and discovered that the message is not reaching adolescents. The PSA needs to relate to the audience, adolescents in this case, and it needs to be delivered in a method that targets the audience (5). Surveys of college students have shown that PSAs that focus on more localized consequences have a greater impact on the actions of students than messages intended for the general public (10). PSAs and other alcohol prevention messages need to focus their campaigns on why adolescents drink and explain why drinking will have negative consequences.


Peer pressure and social norms play a significant role in a minor’s decision to drink. In addition, the individual’s personality traits and his/her own perception of risk determines whether or not they consume alcohol and in what quantities. All of these factors need to be considered when trying to promote a healthier, safer lifestyle for adolescents. The government needs to use its resources to develop programs or campaigns that appeal to adolescents. The Minimum Drinking Age Act has been successful in reducing alcohol related fatalities as it was intended to do. However, the policy also aimed at reducing underage drinking, which it has not significantly achieved. The policy focuses on coercive measures to influence adolescents when research has proven that young adults are more influenced by peers and social norms. It is obvious that the Minimum Drinking Age Act does not prevent minors from drinking alcohol. In some instances, the mere fact that it is illegal encourages minors to drink more. Alcohol prevention needs to be focused on the social and behavioral factors that are the fundamental causes of underage drinking.


1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Alert: Underage Drinking. US Department of Health and Human Services, 2006.

2. Focus Adolescent Services. Alcohol and Teen Drinking. Focus Adolescent Services.

3. Bonnie, R. and O’Connell, M. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Washington, DC: The National Academic Press, 2004.

4. Hanson, David. What About the Drinking Age? Potsdam, NY: State University of New York.

5. Gotthofer, A. Anti-Drinking and Driving PSAs: Do They Have Any Meaning to Underage College Students? AEJMC 1997; 11 Oct.

6. O’Callahgan, F. et al. Models of Alcohol Use by Young Adults: An Examination of Various Attitude Behavior Theories. J Stud Alcohol 1997, Sept; 58(5): 502-7.

7. Salazar, M. Comparison of Four Behavioral Theories: A Literature Review. AAOHN Journal 1991, Mar; 39(3): 128-135.

8. American Medical Association. Minimum Legal Drinking Age. American Medical Association.

9. Rolison, M. and Scherman, A. Factors Influencing Adolescents' Decisions to Engage in Risk-Taking Behavior. Adolescence. 2002; 37 (147):585-597.

10. Gotthoffer, A. Localization of Relevant Consequences in Anti-Drinking and Driving PSAs: A New Approach to Targeting Underage College Students? Health Marketing Quarterly, 1998; 16 (2):17-37.

11. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts 2002. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, 2002.

12. Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Alcohol and Underage Drinking. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

13. Johnson, Kelly. Underage Drinking. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 2004.

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