What’s the Big Deal About 21? (A Timeline)

Written by Mariah J. Garratt || Photo by @rawpixel on Unsplash

Today’s teens have only ever known the age 21 threshold for the purchase of alcohol. However, many parents may still remember pre-Reagan presidency, when legal drinking ages were given far more flexibility. In fact, before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was enacted, each state was permitted to set their own standards on the subject.


To better understand the significance of the age 21 ruling, take a look at the chain of events that led to this national standard.


  • February 1933: Congress, backed by the leadership of President Roosevelt, moves to repeal the 18th Amendment, which had enacted Prohibition and made the manufacturing and sale of alcohol illegal.
  • 1966: The sale of alcohol is legal in all 50 states once more.
  • 1970s & early 1980s: Studies begin to show a pattern of “blood borders” – deadly car crashes occurring when an underage youth would crash on their way back after drinking in a state with a lower drinking age. These highly publicized occurrences heightened concerns and discussion from both parents and advocacy groups.
  • 1980s: Research on this time period indicates that if stricter limits were put in place for drivers under the age of 21, over 375 fatal car crashes could have been prevented annually.
  • 1984: Congress enacts the Uniform Drinking Age Act, stipulating that all states raise their minimum legal drinking age to 21. For states not complying, federal funding for highway systems is withheld.
    • July 17, 1984: President Ronald Reagan states, “Now, raising that drinking age is not a fad or an experiment. It’s a proven success.”
  • 1987: All but 4 states in the United States are covered by the age 21 ruling.
  • July 1988: Wyoming becomes the last state to comply with the Uniform Drinking Age Act, putting all 50 states under the age 21 ruling.
  • 1991: One study maps the progress that states have made since the introduction of the Uniform Drinking Age Act. Results find…
    • High school seniors residing in MLDA 18 states drank significantly more than in states with an MLDA 21 standard.
    • A higher MLDA was shown to influence a decrease in the number of traffic accidents.
  • 2006: Research done by the Department of Psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine presents that significant reductions in risk for binge drinking could be traced back to the 1984 bill, particularly noting a decrease for 12–20-year-old males.
  • 2007: The US Surgeon General calls for united action between parents, schools, lawmakers, and more to help prevent underage drinking.
  • August 22, 2012: Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, signs a social host law, making parents legally liable for providing alcohol to underage youths. “By putting a social host law on the books,” the Governor stated, “we are sending a strong message to all adults that they will be held responsible when allowing this harmful activity.”


Progress has been made to address this important issue over the past decades. However, a great deal of progress lies ahead in order to better prevent the dangers of underage drinking.


As a parent, help educate your child about the history and reasons behind the age 21 standard today. (Need tips to help start your conversation? Check out our TIP the Scale conversation starters!)