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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 It was repealed by the 21st amendment — and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.

Stephen Childs

100 Comments

  1. Hey, thanks a lot for watching this Road Trip edition of Almanac. You also really shaped it in a ton of ways.
    Watch the rest of the episodes here: http://bit.ly/2ZzDmkR
    Don't miss them!

  2. Canada, which kept its low drinking age in the 80s, has witnessed a similar decline in DUI fatalities. THe 21 drinking age in this country has nothing to do with saving lives and everything to do with a bunch of puritanical biddies who can't stand the fact that someone, somewhere–especially teenage boys–might be enjoying life a little.

  3. Please make indonesian (bahasa) subtitles for the video
    Respect from indonesia 🇮🇩

  4. i find it ironic that the ad i got for this video was for the Drivetime app, aka the app that encourages phone use while driving. funny how we basically traded in intoxicated driving for distracted driving.

  5. If I can be drafted to fight in world war 3, then I can drink. I dont care about the laws. They wont catch me drunk if im in my own basement.

  6. If you can vote, join the military and go to prison at age 18, you should be able to drink

  7. As an Aussie, i learnt about the US drinking age from Tupac :

    "And did you ever stop to think,
    I'm old enough to go to war, but I ain't old enough to drink"

  8. Americans aged 20 “I can’t wait to drink”

    5 year old British children in the company of an adult on private property “Bruh”

  9. I don’t see the problem with this; it saved lives. Then again as a Muslim I’m against alcohol all together.

  10. So you can drive when you’re 16 and be in charge of other lives, but have to wait till you’re 21 to drink.

  11. States surrender their sovereignty by making themselves slaves to the funds gathered by the national government.

  12. This far more the work on Elizabeth Dole’s part than Reagan. She wasn’t even mentioned in the video save for a few graphics of Supreme Court paperwork that literally had her name on it. Get your facts straight.

  13. It was irritating to hear so many people here pronounce ‘twenty’ as ‘twenny’. If Ronald Reagan can pronounce the second ‘t’ in ‘twenty’ then why can’t you?

  14. So this was an interesting video, but I have to ask: why did you decide to use that map of the US for your color-coded map? The fact that each state is a different color makes it really hard to tell what color you drew over any given state. Why not just use a map with the border of the state and the name in black, and just blank white background – then we could easily tell which states were supposed to be blue or yellow or whatever?

  15. I always wondered why if wer old enough to file taxes, why cant we have one lousy drink?

  16. In america 16yo’s drive a car, but alcohol its 21?… i’ve been drinking publically since 16 and at 21 i will get my car…. strange contintent is it

  17. This is why romanians consider Work&Travel programs to America only after they are 21

  18. I don't think the problem is that the drinking age is too low, necessarily, but I think we need more educating on alcohol in schools.
    Another thing is a cultural change, like some in the video suggested. A lot of American movies and shows promote teen drinking and getting drunk out of your mind.

  19. If drinking and driving is such a problem, why stop only 18-21 year olds. If we use this logic, we either make driving illegal for all, or make drinking illegal. I hate discrimination against different ages groups.

  20. They didn’t give us facts about the drunk driver crashes under the age of 21

  21. The problem isn't that a seventeen year old kid is drinking. The problem is that a seventeen year old kid is driving.

  22. Bruh i am from a country in asia and this is so funny to me cause me and my dad used to drink together when i was 8

  23. What doesn't make any sense about America and the drinking age is this. Yes drinking leads to drink driving that's obvious. But making drinking such a negative thing to young people inspires the wrong type of culture surrounding it. Take a lot of Europe for example, which isn't perfect, but can provide some answers. Generally alcohol is introduced in the mid-teens to accompany food (take the UK and being 16 to have a beer with some food) or lower level alcohols such as beer is able to be bought at 16 (Germany for example). This allows people to come to terms with their limits earlier on, and leads to a society that doesn't frown upon alcohol, but rather sees it as something you can voluntarily partake in. In America, there seems to be an issue whereby kids grow up never having drank and simply go out and get battered because they don't understand what their limits are. This leads to a culture of binge drinking around early ages and an inability to be able to have other coping mechanisms in the long run, as it is too easy a release, found just after many peoples' formative years.

    Honestly, though, socially America is always going to seem backwards to me.

  24. It’s funny to watch that a as a German, where you can legally drink with 16 and if your parents allow it you can probaly drink at any age

  25. In Sweden at 18, you're allowed to drink in restaurants, pubs, clubs or wherever they serve alcohol, but you can't buy it in our liqour stores until you're 20.

  26. My dad talked about the 18 year olds getting beer back in day, and they'd buy it for the whole high school, down to freshman, so yes, 18 is a bad choice. I believe it should have been 19, like cigs. Cause 18 you're still in high school and likely living with parents. By 19, you're in college, and deseve to party.

    I'm against making things cooler by denying them. Weed and Beer are cool to whole teen youth, cause it's for adults, and they all want to be adults. If we let kids at 19 be real adults, then I think it would solve problems than 21 years old.

    Think about all the party movies in college, by 21 you're basically done with college. Age limits never stopped anyone, and lame that they think bigger punishment will get people not to do something.

  27. So you can get drafted by the army at 18, get shot, get killed, get captured and tortured in a different country and even a different continent, but you can't drink till you are 21, yea that's how it sounds to us Europeans.

  28. In the Orthodox Church, we feed a small amount of blessed wine to infants and children, but it's on a very small spoon. We do that in every state. ⛪

  29. There is a philosophy that says that if something is unobservable — unobservable in principle — it is not part of science. If there is no way to falsify or confirm a hypothesis, it belongs to the realm of metaphysical speculation, together with astrology and spiritualism. By that standard, most of the universe has no scientific reality — it's just a figment of our imaginations.

  30. Virginia laughs at this. I guess?

    In company of parents☑️
    In home of parents☑️
    Parents bought it☑️
    Sober-ish☑️

    (And anyone who says no, I live near to where the moonshiners was made. Fight me)

  31. Vox videos tend to lose my interest mid way through with their long, “lets solve a mystery” videos that could have much more straight forward explanations

  32. Alcohol is illegal where I live. We don't have drunk drivers, but there is Alcohol on the Black market.

  33. Michael Jackson gave Jesus juice to 12 year olds, they should revoke his made up presidential award he received so they could use "Beat It" in ads against drunken driving.

  34. The drinking age is 21 in every state but Weed is legal or illegal or medical is illegal depending on the state.

    What even America!

  35. "26% reduction in nighttime single vehice fatalities among 19 and 20 year olds" uh, that's a bit too specific

  36. At 14 you can legally drink in Germany, if you with your parents. That means drinking beer in public like a restaurant or everyelse.
    At 16 you can buy yourself beer and can do everything above.
    It's completely normal!

  37. it should be 25 everywhere. when the brain stops developing. some people forget it’s literal poison.

  38. If you get tried as an adult, you get all the responsibility and choices of an adult. No exceptions.

  39. something ive always wondered is how does europe get by with 18+ drinking laws? based on america, shouldn’t their drunk driving statistics be through the roof? i visited a european country and was able to legally drink, and the whole culture around alchohol seemed different, which leads me to beleive that the issue isnt the age, its the culture

  40. In Ontario, Canada it’s 19 where I’m from. But in Quebec it’s 18 😎

  41. If marijuana and psychedelics are illegal then why not make alcohol illegal too? Alcohol is even more dangerous mentally and physically to the person drinkinf and to people around the person. My dad has a drinking problem. I want to get the old him back

  42. Interesting, of course, how this issue must be addressed through law/regulation, but some how that is always unthinkable for corporations producing ecologically destructive products and also ridiculous amounts of pollution…

  43. 18 and you need to register for the draft, can buy guns, tobacco products, and judicially get treated as an adult; but drinking is out of the options. This should change. Tell me if you did a difference when you have teens (18+) starting college trying to party and live their lives and the only chance that they can drink they drink as much as they can because they dont know when will be the next time they can = more DUI's… Gov't just created a bigger problem. Lower the drinking age!

  44. To those who doesnt want this, come live here in the Philippines, 18 can drink and buy (17 drink only), but the problem is our roads, its very full of traffic 😢

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