Scoring the Strengths and Weaknesses of Underage Drinking Laws in the United States

AuthorDeborah A. Fisher,Eduardo Romano,Sue Thomas,James C. Fell,Michael Scherer
Published date01 March 2015
Date01 March 2015
Scoring the Strengths and Weaknesses of
Underage Drinking Laws in the United States
James C. Fell, Sue Thomas, Michael Scherer, Deborah A. Fisher,
and Eduardo Romano
Several studies have examined the impact of a number of minimum legal drinking age 21 (MLDA-
21) laws on underage alcohol consumption and alcohol-related crashes in the United States. These
studies have contributed to our understanding of how alcohol control laws affect drinking and
driving among those who are under age 21. However, much of the extant literature examining
underage drinking laws uses a “Law/No law” coding, which may obscure the variability inherent in
each law. Previous literature has demonstrated that inclusion of law strengths may affect outcomes
and overall data f‌it when compared to “Law/No law” coding. In an effort to assess the relative
strength of states’ underage drinking legislation, a coding system was developed in 2006 and
applied to 16 MLDA-21 laws. The current article updates the previous endeavor and outlines a
detailed strength coding mechanism for the current 20 MLDA-21 laws.
KEY WORDS: strength, underage, laws
It is a widely maintained misperception that the minimum legal drinking age
of 21 (MLDA-21) in the United States is embodied in a single law and, therefore,
all states have the same law. In actuality, the MLDA-21 has multiple provisions
targeting outlets that sell alcohol to minors; adults who provide alcohol to minors;
and underage persons who purchase or attempt to purchase, possess, or consume
alcohol. The federal government adopted legislation in 1984 that provided strong
incentives—the risk of losing substantial highway construction funds—for the
states to adopt a uniform minimum drinking age of 21. By 1988, each of the 50
states and the District of Columbia (DC) had passed laws that made it illegal for
persons under the age of 21 to possess and purchase or attempt to purchase
alcohol. Later, all states and DC enacted laws prohibiting the furnishing or selling
of alcohol to individuals under the age of 21 years. To support the core MLDA-21
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laws, states have also expanded MLDA-21 laws that target youth. For example,
since drivers under age 21 are not supposed to consume any alcohol, zero
tolerance (ZT) laws were adopted that provide for lower blood alcohol concentra-
tion (BAC) limits for drivers under the age of 21 years. Graduated driver licensing
(GDL) laws with nighttime driving restrictions have also been adopted which
limit underage drivers’ availability to alcohol and their drinking and driving.
Laws making it illegal for youth to use fake identif‌ication in order to purchase
alcohol have also been passed by the states. Other MLDA-21 laws focus on
affecting the behavior of those who sell or furnish alcohol such as those that
mandate beer keg registration (or regulation), prohibitions on hosting underage
drinking parties, and civil liability laws targeting commercial and noncommercial
providers of alcohol to underage youth, among others. The National Highway
Traff‌ic Safety Administration (NHTSA) within the U.S. Department of Transpor-
tation estimates that MLDA-21 laws have reduced traff‌ic fatalities involving
youth by 13 percent (NHTSA, 2014). However, these laws vary considerably from
state to state, and only one state (Utah) has all 20 legal components that we have
documented. Comparatively, Kentucky has adopted only 9 of the 20 MLDA-21
laws we document in this article. In addition, many MLDA-21 laws in the states
have numerous exceptions, weak sanctions for violations, and make enforcement
very diff‌icult. Thus, the current U.S. effort to control underage drinking involves
a variable package of legislative measures, some of which have very strong
provisions while others contain numerous exemptions and make enforcement
Several studies have been co nducted to determine the imp act of drinking
age laws on underage alcoho l consumption and alcohol -related crashes. Many
of these studies have dem onstrated that the proh ibition of youth from
possessing alcohol and t he prohibition of youth fro m purchasing alcohol (the
two core MLDA-21 laws) reduce underage drinkin g-and-driving fatalit ies
substantially (e.g., A rnold, 1985; Decker, Gr aitcer, & Schaffner, 1988; O’Malley
& Wagenaar, 1991; Ponicki, Gruenewald, & LaScala, 20 07; Shults et al., 2001;
Toomey, Rosenfeld, & Wagenaar, 1996; Wagenaar & To omey, 2002; Williams,
Zador, Harris, & Karpf, 1983 ; Womble, 1989).
These studies have contributed to our understanding of how MLDA-21 laws
affect drinking and driving behaviors among those who are too young to legally
consume alcohol. Specif‌ically, Fell and his colleagues (Fell, Fisher, Voas, Black-
man, & Tippets, 2009) examined six laws that: (i) make it illegal for underaged
individuals to publicly possess alcohol, (ii) make it illegal for underaged
individuals to purchase or attempt to purchase alcohol, (iii) mandate that beer
kegs be registered to the purchaser, (iv) establish negligible BAC limits (i.e., zero
tolerance) for alcohol in underage drivers, (v) establish GDL systems with
nighttime restrictions to reduce youth access to alcohol, and (vi) implement “use
and lose” penalties resulting in an underaged driver’s license being suspended in
the event of an alcohol violation. In that 2009 study, researchers examined the
effective dates for each of these laws to determine if their enactment signif‌icantly
affected the ratios of underage drinking drivers to underage nondrinking drivers
Fell et al.: Strengths and Weaknesses of Underage Drinking Laws 29

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