We are all familiar with the concept of minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) limits. In most countries this is fixed at 18 years of age and it is generally illegal to sell alcohol to persons aged below this in most jurisdictions. Admittedly there are many variations on these laws worldwide.
Famously, in the United States you have to be 21 years of age to be able to buy a beer or a bottle of wine. In some parts of Europe you can do so as early as 16 years of age, particularly so if you are accompanied by an adult. Yet the idea that children and teenagers should not be allowed purchase or consume alcohol until they reach a certain age is a wholly modern concept and as we explore here MLDA limits have only been around for a century or less in almost every country in the world.
Pre-Modern Restrictions on Alcohol Consumption
While MLDA limits are a modern concept, this is not to suggest that there weren’t efforts to impose restrictions on young people consuming alcohol in days gone by. Generally it was believed that children’s intake of alcohol should be restricted, but in an age when clean drinking water was often unavailable and child mortality rates were so high from disease, it was realised, quote logically, that some limited alcohol consumption was often the lesser of two evils.
As a consequence we find repeated references in late medieval and early modern records and in literary works from Shakespeare to William Makepeace Thackeray to ‘small beer’. This was low strength beer of somewhere between 1% and 3% ABV, enough that the alcohol sanitised the water used in it, but low enough to avoid excessive harm to the children who drank this. Another alternative was milk and the modern idea that drinking milk is good for children in parts stems from this pre-modern tendency.
A Growing Drive Towards Sobriety
A discernible shift in attitudes towards children and younger people consuming alcohol occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This followed a broader pattern whereby alcohol consumption amongst all demographics became frowned upon by certain groups within society as clean drinking water became available and tea and coffee emerged as alternatives to beer and wine. Moreover, with the advent of the Medical Revolution between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, there was a growing realisation that alcohol consumption in children and young people was not favourable to biological development.
Another factor at play in the drive towards restricting young people’s access to alcohol in modern times was the emergence of the concept of adolescence and teenagehood as a concept in one’s life stages. Although it seems peculiar to us now, for most of human history people were conceived of as being children and then becoming adults around 14 years of age with the onset of puberty. It was only during the Victorian period in the late nineteenth century that the concept of being a ‘teenager’ emerged and the word ‘teenager’ only really entered the popular lexicon from the end of the Second World War onwards.
This was an important societal development in the emergence of MLDA limits, as it enshrined the idea that people did not become adults until they reached the age of 18 or thereabouts. Consequently it paved the way for MLDA limits to be established at in or around 18 years of age.
Nancy Astor and The Intoxicating Liquor Act (1923)
The history of modern MLDA legislation can be traced to a specific place, time and person. The place was the British parliament at Westminster in London, the time was the early 1920s and the woman was Nancy Astor. Astor had entered the British parliament as its first ever female MP in 1919 following the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which finally gave some, though not all, adult women the vote in Britain.
Astor quickly began pioneering a novel piece of public health legislation. By that time there was a growing body of medical and sociological evidence to suggest that children and teenagers should not be allowed to drink alcohol owing to its impact on their development and the existential problems which early exposure to alcohol could create in some people. Beginning in 1920 she began building a coalition of MPs in support of a ban on the sale of alcohol to people aged under 18 in the United Kingdom.
In 1923, after three years of campaigning, Astor succeeded in her mission when The Intoxicating Liquor (Sales to Persons Under 18) Act was passed by parliament. This prohibited sales of alcohol to persons under 18 years of age across Britain. Moreover, because Britain still ruled vast stretches of the world through its empire in the 1920s, including the subcontinent of India and over 25% of the continent of Africa, the legislation established the concept of MLDA limits across much of the world.
Woman Party Drinking
The End of Prohibition in the US and the Introduction of MLDAs
The British legislation of 1923 set a precedent which was soon being followed in other countries. In the United States, a blanket prohibition of the sale and supply of alcohol was being imposed at the time that Astor’s bill finally passed into law on the other side of the Atlantic. However, Prohibition, as is well known, failed spectacularly, leading not so much to a more sober society in America, but a more lawless one.
When Prohibition was finally brought to an end in 1933, it was done so with the understanding that MLDA limits would be established countrywide in imitation of Britain’s measure ten years earlier. However, this was not mandated at the federal level and instead individual states were allowed to set their own minimum age. Accordingly between the 1930s and 1980s the MLDA differed depending on which state a person was in, with some setting the minimum age at 18, others 19, some 20 and a growing number at 21.
Eventually, in 1984 uniformity was established when President Ronald Reagan introduced a federal law which established the MLDA at 21 years of age nationwide, with fines to be imposed on any state which failed to abide by the new federal mandate. However, the 21 year age limit has always been controversial and calls have been made repeatedly in the four decades since for this to be reduced to 18, 19 or 20.
MLDAs in Northern Europe
The introduction of MLDAs was not followed as quickly in mainland Europe. In Northern Europe this was owing to the fact that substantial restrictions were already in place on the sale and supply of alcohol in countries like Sweden and Finland and others like Norway had experimented with outright prohibition. For instance, in Sweden and Finland until 1955 and 1970 respectively an alcohol rationing system was in place whereby anyone trying to buy alcohol had to do so from a state-licensed store which stamped a booklet that they had noting the alcohol purchased. This ensured that alcohol use amongst teenagers was heavily curtailed. In the 1990s both countries moved to a more conventional system.
In Germany the first MLDAs were not introduced until 1951 when the government of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) passed the Law for the Protection of Minors in Public. This established the MLDA at 16 years of age. The law was subsequently revised on several occasions, yet the core tenet remains in place with respect to wine and beer, though spirits are restricted for sale to those aged 18 and above.
MLDAs in the Wine-Drinking States of Southern Europe
The situation differed considerably in Southern Europe. Here there was a historic tradition of wine-drinking and it was not uncommon for children to be allowed drink small amounts of wine from a relatively young age. As such there was a cultural resistance to establishing MLDAs for many years. France, for instance, only moved to ban wine consumption by pupils in schools in 1956.
Thereafter there was a general drift towards establishing MLDAs in many Mediterranean countries. However, at first the age limit was generally 16 years of age, while supervised wine-drinking remained common in family settings for teenagers even after legislation was introduced. In more recent times there has been a drift towards establishing uniformity with the rest of Europe. For instance, in 2009 Spain raised its MLDA from 16 to 18, in part in order to curb excessive drinking by foreign teenagers at tourist hotspots like the Balearic Islands.
Today there are MLDAs in place in most of the world’s approximately 200 nation states. [Text Box 1] If one is travelling through Europe or South America the MLDA limit is almost certain to be 18 years of age. For instance, Paraguay is the only major exception in South America, where the MLDA is 20. In Europe it is generally 18, though many countries have exceptions for 16 and 17 year olds if they are accompanied by an adult and moderate, responsible wine drinking by teenagers at family gatherings remains very commonplace in countries like France, Spain and Italy.
The picture is more mixed in parts of Africa, particularly the Sahel and Sub-Saharan region, as it does in North America and Southeast Asia. In most parts of the Middle East alcohol consumption of any kind by natives is prohibited, but permits for non-Muslim residents to drink alcohol in their own homes are available on a growing basis in most Arab states.
The concept of MLDA limits is a relatively modern one. It only became possible to conceive of prohibiting children and teenagers from drinking alcohol in modern times as safer options such as tea and sanitary water became more available, yet even in the medieval and early modern period people were aware of the desirability of limiting the alcohol intake of children. Owing to this, small beer and milk were often favoured for children in earlier eras. Beginning in the 1920s countries began introducing MLDA limits. Thereafter, while some countries opted for 16 or 17 years of age as the minimum limit, particularly countries like France and Spain with a long history of wine consumption, the consensus is that the MLDA should be 18 years of age. Only a small number of outliers like the United States continue to impose a higher age restriction.
Countries with no MLDAs
While most countries today have imposed MLDAs, there are still a very small number of countries where alcohol sales to children and teenagers are technically permissible. There are very few restrictions on the sale of alcohol in Armenia and while there is an unofficial cap of 18 years of age, wine, beer and even the country’s famed brandy can theoretically be purchased by all. In Barbados there is a restriction on persons under 16 years of age from drinking in licenced premises, but no ban on the sale of alcohol elsewhere to children and teenagers.
Djibouti in the Horn of Africa has no MLDAs of any kind, as is the case in several other African nations such as the Central African Republic. Nigeria is a federal state and while there are MLDAs in place in some of the 36 constituent states of the country, some have no restrictions of any kind. In Burkina Faso the legal drinking age is 13. There are no restrictions in Cambodia, though there are growing calls to impose MLDAs. Finally, the small former Portuguese enclave in southern China, Macau, has not introduced any restrictions on the sale or supply of alcohol since it acquired independence from Portugal and became an autonomous part of China in 1999.
Christopher Carpenter and Carlos Dobkin, ‘The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health’, in Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2011), pp. 133–156.
Angela McShane, ‘Drink, song and politics in early modern England’, in Popular Music, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 2016), pp. 166–190.
Mari Takayanagi, ‘Astor the Fairy Godmother: The Intoxicating Liquor Act 1923’, in Open Library of Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2020), pp. 1–33.
Phil Withington, ‘Intoxicants and Society in Early Modern England’, in The Historical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 3 (September, 2011), pp. 631–657.
2 May 1964 – On in this day in 1964 Nancy Astor died in Grimsthorpe in England. Astor is not as well-known today as one might expect that she should be, for she was the first woman to ever sit as an MP in the British parliament at Westminster, taking up her seat in 1919 and retaining it down to 1945. She is a controversial figure, not least owing to her partial support for Nazi Germany. Despite her questionable later political views, Astor was responsible for introducing a key piece of public health legislation in Britain shortly after she joined parliament. In 1920 she introduced a bill to make the minimum legal drinking age in Britain 18 years of age, the first bill of its kind in modern times. Eventually she built a strong enough coalition in support of this that in 1923 The Intoxicating Liquor (Sales to Persons Under 18) Act was passed in 1923. This prohibited sales of alcohol to persons under 18 years of age. In the years and decades that followed the scientific and social basis for her legislation was accepted and countries all across the world introduced similar legislation, albeit with the minimum age varying from between 16 and 21 depending on the jurisdiction. Countries with a strong tradition of wine drinking also took a more relaxed approach to moderate consumption of wine by teenagers.
17 July 1984 – On this day in 1984 President Ronald Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This mandated on a federal basis that it was illegal for US states to enshrine laws which made it possible to sell alcohol to people aged under 21 years. The law did not make it illegal for people under 21 years of age to consume alcohol, only to sell it. States which did not abide by the new federal law were to be punished through a 10% reduction on the federal funding they received for highway construction and maintenance. The law followed half a century in the US during which individual states were allowed to set their own minimum legal drinking age limits. The 1984 act differed from those that had been introduced in many European countries during the twentieth century in that it made no distinction between different types of alcohol, whereas other countries had made exceptions for low-strength beer and wine. The law remains in force today despite repeated calls for the minimum age to be reduced to 18, 19 or 20.
Want to Read More? Try these books!
 Angela McShane, ‘Drink, song and politics in early modern England’, in Popular Music, Vol. 35, No. 2 (May, 2016), pp. 166–190; H. Grimm, ‘Beverages of children and youth in the 16th to 19th century, documented by contemporary recollections’, in Arztl Jugendkd, Vol. 68 (1977), pp. 345–351.
 John Demos and Virginia Demos, ‘Adolescence in Historical Perspective’, in Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 31, No. 4 (November, 1969), pp. 632–638.
 Anthony Masters, Nancy Astor: A Biography (New York, 1981); Mari Takayanagi, ‘Astor the Fairy Godmother: The Intoxicating Liquor Act 1923’, in Open Library of Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2020), pp. 1–33.
 Anthony Masters, Nancy Astor: A Biography (New York, 1981); Lady Astor, ‘The English Law Relating to the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors’, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Vol. 109 (September, 1923), pp. 265–278; Mari Takayanagi, ‘Astor the Fairy Godmother: The Intoxicating Liquor Act 1923’, in Open Library of Humanities, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2020), pp. 1–33.