In 1984, Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Law, which required that States – as a condition of receiving State highway funds – prohibit people under the age of 21 from purchasing or publicly possessing alcohol. By 1988, every State had passed legislation to meet the Federal funding requirements. Since that time, there have been significant reductions in fatal highway traffic crashes and other public health problems as a result of the Federal and State legislation raising the minimum purchase age1. This positive public health impact has occurred despite insufficient enforcement. Researchers have hypothesized that effective enforcement would enhance the beneficial impact of the legislation, and they have noted that some States have provisions that hamper enforcement efforts2.

Accordingly, most States specifically prohibit minors from purchasing alcohol. However, four States – Delaware, Indiana, New York, and Vermont – prohibit minors from purchasing alcohol only if the minor uses fraudulent identification or false statements. It is unclear how significant this variation is in practice. As discussed below, a purchase made in these States without using fraudulent means is probably still illegal under possession statutes. In addition, several States have exceptions to their purchase statutes that allow minors to purchase alcohol under limited circumstances. Unlike possession statutes (see below), the exceptions are relatively rare and provide very limited opportunities for minors to purchase alcohol. The most common exception – a purchase that occurs as part of a compliance check – provides an important tool for reducing illegal sales to minors. Exceptions included in the chart below are defined as follows:

  • Employment —1 State permits minors to purchase alcohol if in connection with their employment.

  • Student—2 States allow minors to purchase alcohol if in connection with being a student or for educational purposes.

  • Religious services—1 State permits minors to purchase alcohol if in connection with religious services.

  • Medical treatment—2 States permit minors to purchase alcohol if in connection with medical treatment.

  • Parent, guardian, or custodian consent or presence—2 States allow minors to purchase alcohol in the presence of, accompanied by, or with the consent of a parent, guardian, or custodian.

  • Spouse consent or presence—1 State allows minors to purchase alcohol in the presence of or with the consent of their legal-aged spouse.

  • Law enforcement—13 States permit minors to purchase alcohol in connection with an investigation or “sting” operation conducted in conjunction with law enforcement officials (and, in several States, licensees or employers, see footnotes in the chart below) to identify illegal alcohol sales. This exception often requires parental consent and specifies a minimum age at which minors can participate; many States require minors to be at least 18 years old. Many States may have this exception as part of an administrative decision even though there is no statutory provision. As noted above, our analysis does not include such decisions.

In contrast to the possession and consumption statutes analyzed below, no State exempts purchases in private settings, probably because to do so would appear to violate the National Minimum Drinking Age Law of 1984.

The same exceptions apply or can be applied by implication to statutory provisions that prohibit attempted purchase of alcohol by minors. Attempted purchase is often, but not always, explicitly included in the statute related to the purchasing of alcohol by minors. Attempted purchases are conceptually a lesser-included part of the offense of purchasing – one cannot purchase alcohol without attempting to purchase it. Most States permit prosecutions for attempted crimes that involve affirmative acts even if the statutory crime does not explicitly include “attempt” language. Thus, States that do not explicitly include “attempted purchase” language probably still permit prosecution for such an offense. In addition, law enforcement officials did not identify the lack of an “attempted purchase” statute as a barrier to law enforcement.

Purchase provisions should be analyzed in conjunction with possession statutes (see below for analysis of possession statutes). Arguably, one cannot purchase alcohol without possessing it although one can possess it without purchasing (or attempting to purchase) it. Thus, a minor who purchases alcohol is potentially liable for two offenses. Purchasing alcohol is generally considered the more serious of the two offenses. This is an important factor in the analysis of several States’ lack of a purchasing statute comparable to that of the other 46 States and the District of Columbia.

Attempted Purchase/Purchase of Alcohol by Minors

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1Wagenaar, A. and Toomey, T. (2002). Effects of minimum drinking age laws: Review and analyses of the literature from 1960 to 2000 . Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement No. 14 : 206-225.

2Wagenaar, A. and Wolfson, M. (1994). Enforcement of the legal minimum drinking age in the United States. Journal of Public Health Policy 15: 37-53.