Minimum Legal Drinking Ages around the World

The minimum legal drinking age varies dramatically around the world. Most such laws apply only to drinking alcoholic beverages in public locations. The only country with a minimum legal age for consuming alcohol at home is the United Kingdom, which prohibits drinking below the age of six.

The average (mean) minimum legal drinking age around the globe is 15.9. The majority of countries have set the drinking age at 18. In fifty countries the minimum age is lower than 18 and in 12 countries it is higher than 18.

The enforcement of minimum legal drinking ages also varies widely between countries and often within countries. In many nations the law isn’t generally enforced unless alcohol is abused and associated with behavioral problems.

Internationally, the average age at which drinking alcohol first occurs is 12 years and about 80% of young people begin drinking alcoholic beverages regularly at age 15 or younger according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

World Drinking Ages
None 16 17 18 19 20 21
  • Albania
  • Angola
  • Armenia
  • Cambodia
  • Comoros
  • Cuba
  • Equatorial Guinea
  • Ghana
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Jamaica
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • Morocco
  • Norway
  • Romania
  • Swaziland
  • Togo
  • Uruguay
  • Vietnam
  • Austria (18 in some areas)
  • Belgium*
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Germany*
  • Georgia
  • Haiti
  • Italy
  • Liechtenstein*
  • Luxembourg
  • Macau
  • Malasia
  • Netherlands*
  • Sudan
  • Switzerland*
  • Tokelau
  • Cyprus
  • Malta
  • Algeria
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahamas
  • Belarus
  • Belize
  • Bermuda
  • Bolivia
  • Botswana
  • Brazil (19 in some provinces)
  • Burundi (none with parents)
  • Cameroon
  • Canada (19 in some provinces)
  • Cape Verde
  • Central African Republic
  • Chile
  • China
  • Columbia
  • Costa Rica
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • El Savador
  • Eritrea
  • Estonia
  • Ethiopia
  • Fiji (lowered from 21 in 2009)
  • Finland
  • France (no minimum age in private)
  • Gabon
  • Gambia
  • Gibraltar
  • Greece
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Honduras
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • India (varies by state)
  • Iraq
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Jordan
  • Kenya
  • Kyrgystan
  • Lebano
  • Lesoto
  • Lithuania
  • Malaw
  • Maldives
  • Mauritius
  • Mexico
  • Moldovia
  • Mongolia
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Nepal
  • New Zealand
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • North Korea
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Puerto Rico
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Republic of China
  • Republic of Congo
  • Russia
  • Rwanda
  • Samoa
  • Serbia
  • Seychelles
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovena
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sweden (none for low proof beverage)
  • Syria
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Tonga
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tunisia
  • Turkey
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uganda
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • United States Virgin Islands
  • Vanuatu
  • Venezuela
  • Zambia
  • Zimbabwe
  • Nicaragua
  • South Korea
  • Iceland
  • Japan
  • Paraguay
  • Indonesia
  • Kazakhstan
  • Oman
  • Pakistan
  • Palau
  • Sri Lanka
  • United States (with many exceptions, see below)

* 16 to18 depending on beverage

Although it is commonly believed that the minimum drinking age in the U.S. is 21, people can legally drink below that age under many different circumstances.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act.... It does not prohibit persons under 21 (also called youth or minors) from drinking. The term "public possession" is strictly defined and does not apply to possession for the following:

Many of the states that have chosen to specifically prohibit alcohol consumption by those under age 21 have a variety of exceptions. For example,

Some States allow an exception for consumption when a family member consents and/or is present. States vary widely in terms of which relatives may consent or must be present for this exception to apply and in what circumstances the exception applies. Sometimes a reference is made simply to "family" or "family member" without further elaboration.

...

Some States allow an exception for consumption on private property. States vary in the extent of the private property exception which may extend to all private locations, private residences only, or in the home of a parent or guardian only. In some jurisdictions, the location exception is conditional on the presence and/or consent of the parent, legal guardian, or legal-age spouse. 2

Some States also allow exceptions for educational purposes (e.g., students in culinary schools), religious purposes (e.g., sacramental use of alcoholic beverages), or medical purposes. 3

Exceptions

The following map shows the exceptions to the minimum age of 21 for the consumption of alcohol as of January 1, 2011 3

Exceptions to Minimum Age of 21 for Consumption of Alcohol as of January 1, 2011

Note: This map is based on statutes and regulations only. It does does not include exceptions created by case law (judicial decisions), custom, or application of constitutional protections.

The problem of identifying the optimum minimum drinking age to reduce alcohol abuse is a serious one. It involves issues of freedom, responsibility, parental rights, religion, politics and many other realms of life.

The minimum drinking age of 21 in the U.S. appears to be not only ineffective but actually counter-productive. Although it was passed with the best of intentions, it has had some of the worst of outcomes.

In reaction to these problems, the president emeritus of Middlebury College created the organization, Choose Responsibility, to promote discussion and public debate about how best to reduce alcohol abuse. It has suggested a number of ideas.

Choose Responsibility believes federal legislation should not penalize states that choose to participate in a pilot alcohol education program based on a minimum drinking age of 18. Thus, it is the groups's belief that:

Choose Responsibility also proposes a new approach to alcohol education program similar to Drivers' Education in that it would:

The alcohol education course curriculum would:

Upon successful completion of the curriculum, each student of the program would receive a license, entitling the recipient to all the privileges and responsibilities of adult alcohol purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol. 6

Choose Responsibility has suggested changes in state policies to reduce alcohol abuse. It points out that states are allowed to legislate any of the following exceptions to the law prohibiting purchase, possession and consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21:

A majority of states take advantage of these allowances by legislating exceptions to possession or consumption of alcohol by "minors" under 21, and to the furnishing of alcohol by legal-aged individuals. For example, 30 states currently allow for parents to provide their children with alcohol in the privacy of their own homes. But in the remaining 20, parents are barred from providing their children with alcohol until the child's 21st birthday. Those who adhere to strict rules at home in keeping with state laws are, in fact, prevented from introducing young adults to alcohol in a controlled home environment. This often relegates initial drinking experiences to settings where there is little or no supervision or guidance and a great deal of peer pressure to experiment. Parents across the country should be allowed and encouraged to provide their own children (and not their children's friends) with alcohol in the context of teaching and modeling responsible decisions about alcohol and its use. 7

There is much research evidence to suggest that these changes could reduce the extent of alcohol abuse in the U.S. Some organizations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo oppose even discussing any of these proposals. But reducing alcohol abuse is a very important matter in the public interest so let the discussion begin.

 

Note: This material is presented for information and educational purposes only and and is not a substitute for the services of an attorney. Laws and their interpretation are constantly changing. There is no guarantee, explicit or implicit, that the information provided is accurate and correct. No legal opinion or advice is provided and none should be inferred. Those in need of information about the applicability of laws to their particular set of circumstances, or any other legal matter, should consult a qualified lawyer.

References:

  • 1. Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws. mudpc.org/laws.html
  • 2. Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws. mudpc.org/laws.html
  • 3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage Drinking and Access to Alcohol Consumption. National Institute on alcohol and Alcohol Abuse's Alcohol Policy Information System website.
  • 4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Exceptions to Minimum Age of 21 for Consumption of Alcohol as of January 1, 2008. National Institute on alcohol and Alcohol Abuse's Alcohol Policy Information System website.
  • 5. Modified slightly from "Waiver" at chooseresponsibility.org/waiver/
  • 6. Modified slightly from "license" at chooseresponsibility.org/license/
  • 7. From "State Policies" at chooseresponsibility.org/policy_change

Resources on Minimum Legal Drinking Ages:

  • AMA. Minimum Legal Drinking Age. ama-assn.org/.../minimuml-legal-drinking-age.shtml.
  • Amethyst Initiative. amethystinitiative.org The Amethyst Initiative, a program of college and university presidents, promotes the open discussion and debate about the effectiveness of the age 21 minimum legal drinking age,
  • Ardt, S.K. Adolescent Alcohol Consumption and a Changing Legal Drinking Age. THESIS, 1988.
  • Ash, P., and Levy, D.T. The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Traffic Fatalities. Rockville, MD: NIAAA, 1986
  • Benjamin, C.D. The Lived Experience of Alcohol Consumption by Male, Active-Duty Soldiers below the Minimum Legal Drinking Age: A Qualitative Study. THESIS, 2007.
  • Bond, J., and Jones, B. Raising the Legal Drinking Age. Columbia, SC: SC Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1983.
  • Carter, R.A. Legal Drinking Age. Albany, NY: Legislative and Governmental Services: 1983.
  • Crislip, K. Alcohol drinking ages around the world: Legal drinking ages worldwide. studenttravel.about.com

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