The law is well-established and well-known – those wanting to legally drink alcohol in the United States have to be 21. But whether that answer is explicitly true might vary, depending on the state you’re in.
That’s because many state laws offer up exceptions to the rule. At least three dozen states have laws on their books that carve out exceptions to whether minors can possess or consume alcohol in the U.S.
The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act requires that states prohibit people under 21 from purchasing or publicly possessing alcohol as a condition of receiving state highway funds.
But many states have exceptions about what can be done in a private residence or with a parent.
The data journalists at HealthGrove looked at states with exceptions, and also noted the prevalence of underage drinking in each place.
The visualization below shows just how much the rules vary.
It’s a complicated issue, and those wanting to explore the nuances in their states can use the state lookup tool of the Alcohol Policy Information System.
In Texas, for example, an underage person can possess and consume alcohol if they’re with a parent or guardian.
Other states, like Michigan, don’t provide any exceptions, and people under 21 aren’t allowed to drink or possess alcohol.
Some states – identified in purple on the visualization – may not explicitly prohibit underage alcohol consumption on their books.
The variation between states signals how diverse attitudes are about the issue.
“It’s one indicator of how the states really are different culturally,” said Ralph Blackman, president of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. The group works to eliminate drunk driving and underage drinking, and promote responsible consumption among those of legal drinking age.
Some places – like California – have seemingly contradictory laws.
That state permits minors to possess alcohol in private locations, but it’s illegal for anyone to provide alcohol for a minor in any setting.
Adding to the confusion, local governments can have their own ordinances about underage drinking as well.
Blackman said that cities and counties will sometimes pass ordinances in reaction to a fatality or local event that occurs. College towns, where more young people live and congregate, may also pass their own rules.
The lack of uniformity can present a challenge to parents.
“We really shouldn’t be in the position of telling kids some laws are OK and some are OK to break,” Blackman said.
With the range of laws on the books, it prompts the question: do tighter regulations translate to less drinking?
Though states with the most stringent laws had the least amount of underage drinking, rates didn’t differ substantially when compared to states that did have exceptions, a HealthGrove analysis found.
Underage drinking still remains a significant problem in the United States.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health looked at alcohol use among young people – ages 12 to 20 – in their reporting and found that almost a quarter had reported drinking alcohol in the past month, according to the 2013 survey.
However, underage drinking seems to be on the decline.
Underage drinking decreased 6 percent over the decade shown, while binge drinking decreased at about the same rate.
The nuances of the law create a complicated situation for parents, but Blackman advised keeping the conversation focused.
Talks about alcohol should continue between teens and parents, and be less about the variations of the law, but more about values, Blackman said.
“Parents are the leading influence in a kid’s decision to drink,” he said.