I don’t think there are any definitive answers to this question. The legal drinking age in the United States is indeed a few years higher than the majority of countries around the world, so I would guess that it is partially related to the United States’ historical attitude toward alcohol. From 1919 to 1933, aptly called the Prohibition Era, the U.S. was under a nationwide ban on the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol. The law was enacted after increasing pressure from the Temperance Movement, the proponents of which were advocates for abstinence from liquor.
Based on my experiences while studying abroad in China, minimum drinking age laws don’t seem to be strictly enforced. Consuming alcohol is not a big issue, at least from what I observed, as people would regularly order a beer or two to have with their lunch before continuing on with their day. In sum, I believe minimum drinking age laws are a reflection of a culture’s attitude toward alcohol.
I like to think of it as a trade between driving laws and drinking laws. In other countries that the drinking age is lower, they have stricter driving regulations including age requirements usually at 18 years old. It is also more difficult to obtain a drivers license due to harder driving tests.
Surprisingly, a lower drinking age leads to less alcoholism in a country, as young people are not attracted to the rebellious nature of booze. For example, the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, while the rate of alcoholi consumtion in that country is 4.6 litres per capita, much lower than the 8.3 litres per capita estimated for the US.
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