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What is the legal age for drinking alcohol in USA?

American alcohol laws regularly relate to selling, buying, drinking, and even searching for any alcoholic beverage within the US. While specific alcohol laws are national, others vary depending on the state they live in. Furthermore, a few states have allowed local communities to set and enforce specific rules surrounding who can buy, own, drink and sell alcohol.

The legal age within the United States of America for purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol is 21, based on the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984. Drinking when underage is a grave public health concern that has unfortunately contributed to over 4,300 deaths per year. It has been stated that more than 11% of the alcohol consumed within the United States is by individuals between the ages of 12 and 20.

Underage drinking

will dramatically increase the risk of a young individual being involved in:

  • Some accident
  • Becoming a victim of crime
  • Becoming injured via falling over or being hit
  • Suffering from a form of addiction later on in life

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 60% of youth admit to drinking at least one drink by the time they are 18 years old.

National Minimum Drinking Age Act

The passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act enacted a federal minimum drinking age that all states are required to adhere to receive certain types of federal funding. However, many local and state-based exceptions exist to the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21. Some states allow exceptions for religious activities or consent by a parent, spouse or guardian in specific locations.

No state has an exception that allows anyone other than a family member to provide alcohol to a minor if they are on private property. Many states have furthermore crease laws that ensure there are “Social hosts” that are entirely responsible for underage drinking events on property that they either:

  • Own
  • Lease
  • Otherwise, control

Exceptions for the minimum drinking age

There are, however, exceptions throughout America, which can be seen including:

Lawful employment

Anyone of a minor age who works in a restaurant or food and beverages industry may be able to purchase alcohol for their work. However, in most cases, they will not be allowed to drink the alcoholic beverage themselves physically.

Religious services

Within America, 26 states will allow individuals of minor age to consume alcohol as part of a religious service or ceremony. This can be seen as acts such as drinking wine during a church service.

Parental or carer consent

There are instances in which family consent will allow minors to drink an alcoholic beverage as long as they are in the presence of a family member.

Educational purposes

Students or young adults who have chosen to pursue a career within the food industry, such as a chef, will, when they are in culinary school, be required to consume minimal quantities of alcohol as part of their education experience.

Medical reasons

It is known that certain products and medications may contain trace amounts of alcohol.

A public health problem

Individuals who begin drinking below the age of 21 are often associated with severe and, at some point, irreversible physical and mental problems. The rate at which an individual will be successful in life begins to decrease each year an individual begins drinking under the age of 21.

Americans who drink before the age of 21 have been linked to the following severe mental a physical problems:

  • Death via alcohol poisoning is due to the individual being of such a young age that they have not fully understood the dangers surrounding alcohol.
  • Unintentional injuries, the following are often common injuries associated with individuals who are drunk and below the age of 21
    • Drowning
    • Car crashes, either driving or being hit
    • Falling
    • Burns
  • Suicide and suicidal thoughts
  • Alcohol dependence and possible drug dependence later on in life
  • Changes in brain development due to the young age. The prefrontal cortex does not develop entirely until individuals reach the age of 25
  • Aggression and fighting
  • Sexual assault
  • Changes in school performance, failing classes, poor grades or dropping out altogether.
  • Additional risky behaviours that can be seen include
    • Smoking
    • Drugs
    • Risky sexual behaviours (consensual and non-consensual)

Drinking and driving are relatively high among individuals who are 21 or young. The 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey 15 found that among high school students, during the past 30 days

  • 5% drove after drinking alcohol
  • 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol

Long-term effects of underage drinking

Nationally the legal drinking age is 21. However, each state has the authority to make specific exceptions regarding alcoholic beverages. However, alcohol is known to heavily interfere with the way an individual brain regulates essential functions such as:

  • Movement
  • Moods
  • Impulses
  • Decision making
  • Memory function

The brain, as stated before in the blog, does not fully develop until an individual reaches the age of 25; therefore, introducing alcohol at a young age can lead to immediate mental and physical dangers along with the potential of long-term damage to the development of the brain.

Impact of alcohol on a developing brain

The severe effects of alcoholic substances will often become more permanent on a teenager’s brain than an adult’s. When comparing the development of a teenager’s brain who doesn’t drink to an individual who does, there are significant signs that the brain volume and density are significantly smaller within the key prefrontal and hippocampus areas. The prefrontal area does not stop developing until 25. Therefore if the development is damaged within the teenage years, there will be long-lasting permanent damages.

Many studies have identified that adolescents that engage in heavy alcoholic drinking have at least a 10% reduction in the size of the hippocampus area of the brain. Furthermore, it shows that the function of the hippocampus is uniquely sensitive to alcoholic substances at this point in the individual’s life which can lead to poisoning the nerve cells of the hippocampus, which will eventually cause the cells to either be damaged or destroyed.

The prefrontal cortex, which is located at the right front of the brain, is proportionally more prominent in humans and is specifically involved in the following:

  • Planning
  • Decision making
  • Social interaction
  • Impulse control
  • Reward response
  • Self-awareness
  • Understand emotions

Everyone who has drunk alcohol will know that the substance challenges an individual’s impulse control when under the influence; when comparing the prefrontal cortex of teenagers who are considered heavy drinkers and thoughts, which are not found that the prefrontal volume was significantly smaller in heavy, consistent drinkers.

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