12. Legal Age Limits

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  • Drinking age is the legally mandated minimum age in a particular jurisdiction at which a person may consume alcohol.
  • Drinking age may be distinct from the minimum legal age at which a person may purchase alcohol.
  • In many countries, minimum legal drinking age corresponds to the age of majority, although it may be set at an earlier age or a later one. Drinking age limits are a reflection of local culture.
  • Most legal drinking age legislation does not cover drinking in the home with parental permission and supervision.
  • If enforced properly, drinking age legislation can help deter young people’s drinking.
  • For examples of interventions, see the online database Initiatives Reporting: Industry Actions to Reduce Harmful Drinking.

In many countries, a minimum age exists at which it becomes legally permissible to drink or purchase alcohol. The implementation of such legislation is seen as a means to control when young people are introduced to beverage alcohol. It sets a formal threshold at which the consumption of alcohol is deemed appropriate in a particular society and provides a legally enforceable tool in preventing alcohol access by those under a certain age.

Setting age limits

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Drinking age laws have two distinct components: the threshold at which alcohol can be consumed and purchased on- and off-premise. Legislation in some countries addresses both of these components, while in others the focus is either solely on minimum purchase age or on consumption (for review of legal age limits in different countries, see International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998/2002; World Health Organization, 2004).

Where such provisions exist, the minimum age to buy alcohol off-premise may be lower than for obtaining drinks on-premise. In addition, exemptions may apply where parents are present or when drinking occurs within the home (International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998/2002; World Health Organization, 2004). Legal age limits may also be different in some jurisdictions depending on alcohol content or the type of beverage. For example, a higher age limit may be set for spirits than for beer or wine (see Table 12.1; see also Araoz, 2004; International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998/2002; Österberg & Karlsson, 2003).

International limits

Where the age limit is set also varies among countries. In some, drinking age may correspond to the age of legal majority, in others the legislated age is different. Given the strong cultural influences around drinking, there is no consensus internationally regarding the age when alcohol intake becomes appropriate. As a result, where they exist, legal age limits range from 16 to 21 years and above (International Center for Alcohol Policies, 1998/2002; World Health Organization, 2004). The most commonly applied drinking age is 18 years.  For examples of legislated ages from a number of countries see Policy Table: Minimum Age Limits Worldwide.

Cultural variation

The degree to which young people are exposed to alcohol depends on cultural views on the substance and its role within a given society. For example, the traditional Mediterranean approach to the consumption of beverage alcohol under adult supervision is at variance with other views of alcohol intake as an exclusively “adult” behavior (Araoz, 2004; Heath, 1995, 2000). These differences in societal values are clearly reflected in the rules imposed to govern legal access to alcohol.

With increasing globalization and demands to harmonize policy approaches, consideration in some regions may be given to a uniform drinking age across geographical boundaries. There has been discussion of harmonizing alcohol policies, for example, within the European Union (Österberg & Karlsson, 2003).

The rationale for a standardized approach is in part provided by the problems that can arise when drinking ages are different in neighboring jurisdictions. Young people below the drinking age under one set of laws may have easy access to alcohol in a nearby jurisdiction with lower age limits. Cross-border movement to avoid legal drinking age restrictions has been associated with problems such as alcohol-impaired driving and binge drinking (e.g., Baker & Ramirez, 2000; Clapp, Voas, & Lange, 2001; Shelley, 2001). Yet, agreeing on a common drinking age may prove difficult in light of the diversity of culture, history, and practice with regard to beverage alcohol (Bloomfield et al., 2006).

Policy implications

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Setting policy around drinking and alcohol purchase age is the domain of government. However, there is an important role for others to play in prevention efforts and in the enforcement of drinking and purchase age laws.


The primary rationale behind imposing a minimum legal drinking or purchase age is that young people may be neither physically nor emotionally ready to consume alcohol and thus do not yet possess the necessary internal controls needed to minimize harm to themselves and others (e.g., International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2004b). Evidence suggests that delaying the onset of drinking in young people may prevent or reduce the incidence of harm later in life (Hingson, Zha, & Weitzman, 2009). Legal limits are therefore intended to prevent access and exposure to alcohol and to delay the age at which young people begin to drink. Some research also indicates that those who begin drinking at a younger age may be more likely to drink excessively or struggle with addiction later in life (Norberg, Bierut, & Grucza, in press). However, the effectiveness of drinking age as a prevention measure continues to be debated (e.g., Babor et al., 2003; Lash, 2002; New Zealand Advisory Committee, 1997, 2002; Voas, Tippetts, & Fell, 2003; Wagenaar & Toomey, 2002).

Controlling access to beverage alcohol is not sufficient for prevention. Young people learn about drinking from a multiplicity of sources, including family, peers, educators, and other environmental influences (Houghton & Roche, 2001). The effectiveness of various prevention and education approaches has been much debated (e.g., Babor et al., 2003; International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2004a; McCartt & Kirley, 2006), but there is evidence that these external factors all have an important role to play.

A range of interventions has been developed to prevent the purchase or consumption of beverage alcohol below the drinking age. These have been carried out through law enforcement, retailers and producers of beverage alcohol, educators, and local community actors. Many of such initiatives have been developed and implemented in partnership (see Initiatives Reporting: Industry Actions to Reduce Harmful Drinking).


Drinking age laws are generally concerned with public activities and therefore present an opportunity for enforcement. Although evidence exists that visible and consistent enforcement of drinking laws is the key to the success of legislation (Houghton & Roche, 2001; International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2004a, 2004b; Lipperman-Kreda, Paschall, & Grube, 2009; McCartt, Hellinga, & Wells, 2009; Wagenaar et al., 2000; Wagenaar, Toomey, & Erickson, 2005), it has been lacking or insufficient in many countries.

There are different approaches to enforcing drinking age laws. Some jurisdictions mandate proof-of-age identification that must be presented for service or purchase. Personnel in serving establishments may be trained to identify those under the legal age and to effectively enforce minimum age limits. Other approaches may be appropriate for on- and off-licenses.

Police forces play a role in ensuring compliance with legislation and can, for example, be involved in monitoring licensed premises, sometimes undercover (e.g., Dedel Johnson, 2004; Levy, Stewart, & Wilbur, 1999; Montgomery, 2006; National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, 1997). Enforcement may also include fines or revocation of serving licenses for establishments and sellers in breach of existing laws, as well as fines, community service, or referrals to mandatory treatment and education programs for underage drinkers (Dedel Johnson, 2004; Hafemeister & Jackson, 2004). In the United States, some states delay, revoke, or suspend driver’s licenses as penalty for underage drinking—this may include possession, consumption, or purchase of alcohol—even if offenders were not caught operating a motor vehicle (Hafemeister & Jackson, 2004; Ulmer, Shabanova, & Preusser, 2001).

Finally, communities have a role to play in ensuring that enforcement occurs in areas and locales that are particularly problematic. Parents also have an important role in letting their children know that they are expected to comply with the law.


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There is a consensus across all societies in which beverage alcohol is available that organized efforts should be undertaken to safeguard young people against the harms associated with inappropriate drinking patterns. Avoidance of youthful intoxication and antisocial behavior associated with alcohol misuse is generally held to be a positive objective.

However, there is no consensus worldwide regarding an optimum minimum drinking age or even whether such a limit is desirable. Drinking and purchase limits in most countries that have adopted them are set around 18 years of age, and are products of cultural views about alcohol, the role alcohol plays within a given society, and that society's permissiveness to drinking by young people.

Drinking age legislation is the domain of states and governments. However, teaching young people about responsible drinking patterns and enforcement of local rules must accompany any laws in order to be effective.

POLICY OPTIONS: Drinking Age Limits

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In developing policies and approaches, consideration of a number of key elements is required. While some may be necessary at a minimum and under most conditions, others may not be appropriate in all cases, or may be difficult to implement. The list below offers a menu of areas that need to be addressed, based on effective approaches that have been implemented elsewhere. Specific examples are provided in the online database Initiatives Reporting: Industry Actions to Reduce Harmful Drinking.


Set clearly defined legal threshold for drinking on premise and purchase age off premise.

  • Set realistic age limits compatible with drinking culture and practices.
  • Consider societal views on age and alcohol consumption.
  • Consider relevance to age of majority and legal age for other activities (e.g., employment, voting, marriage, military conscription/enlistment, and driving).
  • Ages for purchase and consumption may be identical or different.
  • Evaluate appropriateness of age identification cards or proof-of-age schemes.
  • Consider the issue of consistency with legal age in neighboring jurisdictions.

Education and prevention

Create awareness around legal drinking and purchase age.

  • Promote knowledge of legal age limits in general population.
  • Promote knowledge about penalties for breaking drinking and purchase age laws in general population, those under the legal age, and servers and retailers of beverage alcohol.

 Provide education for those serving or selling beverage alcohol.

  • Implement responsible hospitality practices for recognizing and dealing with underage patrons.
  • Implement efforts in cooperation with producers, retailers, and servers.


Implement clearly-defined punitive measures.

  • Define penalties for breach of age laws when serving, selling, and purchasing alcohol.
  • Regulate fines for noncompliance with laws or revocation of licenses in establishments.
  • Ensure awareness that breaches will be punished.

Ensure visible and consistent enforcement.

  • Require identification in serving establishments and retail outlets.
  • Ensure appropriate police presence and surveillance.
  • Encourage community organizations to watch troubled areas.
  • Share responsibility for enforcement with families, educators, hospitality industry, law enforcement, community groups, and young people under the drinking age themselves.


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McCartt, A. T., & Kirley, B. K. (2006). Minimum purchase age laws: How effective are they in reducing alcohol-impaired driving? Arlington, VA: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

McCartt, A. T., Mayhew, D. R., Braitman, K. A., Ferguson, S. A., & Simpson, H. M. (2009). Effects of age and experience on young driver crashes: Review of recent literature. Traffic Injury Prevention, 10, 209-219.

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