In the USA, alcohol laws are very strict and specific, while in most other parts of the world they are very lax. What's the reason?

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    Can you be more specific? What part of those laws is strict (compared to other countries)?
    – JJJ
    Apr 7, 2019 at 1:38
  • 1
    Relevant Wikipedia article: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Golden Cuy
    Apr 7, 2019 at 2:18
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    Canadian liquor legislation can be highly regulated as well though I believe most provinces are at 19, barring Quebec at 18. Britain used to have bars shutting down at 10:30 pm. Ditto Finland. So, while there are certainly reasons why the US has fairly restrictive laws, they are NOT uniquely restrictive either, especially not if you compare to some other Western countries some 30+ years back. Apr 7, 2019 at 4:25
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    There are many local laws that are substantially more restrictive than just looking at the minimum drink age - there are counties that don't allow the sale of liquor at all, and Utah has some pretty stringent liquor laws as well. If I recall, they can only have 3.2%ABV or lower on tap - when I visited they had to sell us a bottle of beer for us to pour ourselves to be higher. Liquor stores I think have to be state owned. We couldn't buy growlers from the bar, we had to go to a legally separate but colocated gift shop.
    – Marbrand
    Apr 7, 2019 at 4:35
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    The US drinking law is not strict. It is restrictive, but not strict. Yes. The drinking age is very high. BUT underage drinking is rampant, and is hardly ever punished. If you want to see strict laws... You should see the drug laws of singapore... Aug 15, 2019 at 20:32

3 Answers 3


The "frame challenge" aspect of this answer is to note that, while the USA is stricter than many European countries, it is less strict than many other countries. Many majority Muslim countries ban alcohol outright, or put far greater limits on its sale than the USA.

However drinking culture is more restricted in the USA than in Europe. The age at which you can purchase alcohol is only a little higher in the USA, but there is a difference. Much of this can be traced to the consequences of Prohibition, and the culture in which Prohibition arose.

There is a religious tradition of Protestant piety in the USA, in which personal behaviour is emphasised over ritual. This led to movements that opposed alcohol absolutely in the 19th century and culminated in the constitutional banning of all social alcohol in 1920.

Even after repeal of these laws in the 1930s, the culture of alchol consumption remained very different. The cultural effect of prohibition extends to the present day.

  • 4
    There are also revenue reasons. Many eastern states used to allow liquor to be sold only by state-owned stores, at artificially-high prices. (I think that's still the case in at least some places, though I haven't been back to check.) By contrast, in many western states, you just buy it at the supermarket,
    – jamesqf
    Apr 7, 2019 at 17:18
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    Among western democracies, America does have a pretty prudish attitude towards alcohol. Also, @jamesqf; They're called ABC States, and there are currently 17 of them.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Apr 8, 2019 at 5:40
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    The constitutional amendment didn't ban Alcohol, but moved the regulation of Alcohol from the state level to the Federal Level. Congress had to pass laws which would ban it.
    – hszmv
    Apr 22, 2019 at 14:45
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    True, but the purpose of the amendment was entirely so that Congress would then prohibit alcohol. None of the states voting for the amendment though "okay, now congress will make alcohol less regulated.
    – James K
    Apr 22, 2019 at 15:45
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    @jamesqf It is not necessary for a state to sell alcohol themselves to have restrictions on pricing or to have state excise taxes.
    – user71659
    Apr 22, 2019 at 22:10

The higher minimum legal age for alcohol use in the United States is tied directly into the low minimum driving ages. The U.S. has the largest population of the Western World, and is fairly rural outside of the coastal regions (even then, some coastal states are not that densely populated). This creates the need for lower minimum driving ages in these states. Typically the minimum driving age in these states is 16 although some states allow for hardship license which allow for people as young as 14 to drive, usually in very rural states and usually only if a legal adult guardian is unable to drive; most of the other countries in the Western World don't issue drivers' licenses until 17-18.

Drivers who are the minimum age of driving in any nation have the highest insurance premiums for a reason: young and inexperienced drivers are some of the worst drivers. Since the driving age in the United States is low, a high alcohol legal age is seen as a trade off of sorts.

In 1984, the United States Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which withheld 10% of federal highway funding from states that did not maintain a minimum legal drinking age of 21. As a result, the current legal minimum is set as a condition of Interstate Highway Funding (roads in the U.S. are usually funded by the states, but the Federal Government funds interstates because they were considered defense infrastructure that was vital to mobilizing troops in an invasion of the U.S. or a disaster). This gets around the state issue by tying payment to states restricting alcohol sales to 21 years or older. Since every state has roads that are funded by the Interstate System the states all upped the age to 21 to get their road funding.

  • This answer would be improved by some citations Apr 22, 2019 at 15:41
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    Sure. The statement that young drivers are worse drivers in various countries, that alcohol impairs driving, driving ages being higher in other first world countries, etc. I still think it makes a good point even without the citations, but would likely be a definitive answer with them. Apr 22, 2019 at 15:49
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    @divibisan: Your assumption is correct. It's mostly an inexperience factor, but drivers who are the minimum age of driving in any nation have the highest insurance primium for a reason.
    – hszmv
    Apr 22, 2019 at 18:31
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    The minimum drinking age of 21 was the result of the early campaigns of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which was founded in 1980 by a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Prior to the nationwide drinking age of 21, various states had various minimum drinking ages. Young people would arbitrage these drinking ages by driving across state lines, getting alcohol (or drinking alcohol), and then driving back.
    – Jasper
    Aug 15, 2019 at 20:51
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    It should be noted that the nationwide drinking age of 21 came about as a result of threats to remove federal highway funding from any state where the minimum age was not at least 21
    – Joe W
    Aug 15, 2019 at 21:54

Perhaps the fact that 10% of American adults waste their lives in a state of perpetual inebriation, leading to a corresponding loss in the GDP and fracturing many families, destroying life, and contributing also to a conservatively estimated quarter of a trillion dollars in additional losses annually, might help to contextualize the USA's relatively conservative stance and strictness about alcohol.

Those who claim that alcohol is not addictive or who promote the punchline "drink responsibly" are probably dodging the fact (derived from the Washington Post source above) that at least 88% of alcoholic beverages in this country are consumed by alcoholics.

It's addiction industry at its finest, and US citizens are unquestionably wise insofar as they restrict and curtail it.

Relative to most of Europe, U.S. consumption appears to be below average but not extremely low (9.2 liters per capita annually). It would be interesting to see a breakdown similar to the Washington Post article for other countries.

  • 3
    Can you put these numbers in an international context? How do they compare with European countries (for example)? And does increasing the drinking age help reduce the number of addicts in later life?
    – JJJ
    Aug 15, 2019 at 19:58
  • I've added one source for now. I don't have as much info on European countries yet, as I haven't researched the global side of this in depth yet.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 15, 2019 at 20:33
  • Thanks, the WHO has graphs on alcohol use disorders but they're pretty dated.
    – JJJ
    Aug 15, 2019 at 21:03
  • Anyone who can fill in those gaps will be much appreciated. Alcohol consumption suffers from a pretty embarassing paucity of medical data for being quite possibly the #1 addictive pastime in the world.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 16, 2019 at 18:03
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    The tone of this answer is harsh and judgemental, but I cannot say that it is factually wrong. I think that the answer could be improved by a more neutral tone.
    – Itsme2003
    Mar 29, 2020 at 17:54

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