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Underage Drinking: Underage Purchase of Alcohol

Laws prohibiting minors from purchasing or attempting to purchase alcoholic beverages, together with laws allowing persons under age 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages for law enforcement purposes.



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Expander Policy Description


This policy topic is included in the APIS Highlight on Underage Drinking section. The Highlight's Overview of Underage Drinking Policy in the United States provides additional context that may be helpful in understanding this policy topic. State-by-State summaries of eleven underage drinking policy topics are available in the State Profiles of Underage Drinking Laws section. Maps and charts for all of these policy topics are collected on a single page to provide a more comprehensive graphical overview of underage policies.


(Period Covered: 1/1/1998 through 1/1/2013)

This policy topic covers laws prohibiting minors from purchasing or attempting to purchase alcoholic beverages and laws allowing persons under age 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages for law enforcement purposes.  

Most States, but not all, prohibit minors from purchasing or attempting to purchase alcoholic beverages.  Note that a minor purchasing alcoholic beverages can be prosecuted for possession since, arguably, a sale cannot be completed until there is possession on the part of the purchaser. Purchase and possession are nevertheless separate offenses.  A minor who purchases alcoholic beverages is potentially liable for two offenses in States that have both prohibitions.

In some States, a person under age 21 is allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages as part of a law enforcement action.  These actions are checks on merchant compliance to identify merchants who illegally sell alcoholic beverages to minors.  This allowance for purchase in the law enforcement context may exist even though a State does not have a law specifically prohibiting underage purchase.

 

 

Expander Definitions for Underage Purchase of Alcohol

 

Minor

A person under the age of 21 years

Youth Purchase for Law Enforcement Purposes

Laws allowing a person under age 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages as part of a compliance check to identify merchants who illegally sell alcoholic beverages to minors

 

Expander Explanatory Notes and Limitations for Underage Purchase of Alcohol

Explanatory Notes and Limitations Specifically Applicable to Underage: Purchase

  1. State law pertaining to this policy topic includes both statutory and regulatory provisions. Because detailed and comparable information on historical regulations for all jurisdictions is only available from January 1, 2003 forward, it is possible that APIS coverage of historical data for this policy topic is incomplete. However, any gaps in APIS coverage are limited to regulations that were in effect on or after January 1, 1998, but repealed before January 1, 2003. If a regulation was in effect on January 1, 2003, it is included in the APIS data, including its date of promulgation.
     
  2. Some States prohibit minors from purchasing alcohol only in connection with the minor making a false statement of the minor's age or presenting a false identification (see the APIS policy topic, False Identification for Obtaining Alcohol). The APIS analysis of underage purchase does not address these limited prohibitions.
     
  3. In some States, a minor is allowed to purchase alcoholic beverages as part of a law enforcement action. This allowance for minor purchase in the law enforcement context may exist even though a State does not have a law specifically prohibiting underage purchase.

 

Explanatory Notes and Limitations for Underage: Possession, Consumption, Internal Possession, Purchase and Furnishing

  1. Some States' provisions do not apply reciprocal exceptions to both the provider of alcohol and the minor (e.g., California permits minors to possess alcohol in private locations, but it is illegal for anyone to provide alcohol to minors in any setting).
     
  2. Some States have exceptions for beverages containing less than one-half of one percent alcohol by volume. APIS does not address these types of provisions.
     
  3. Laws that allow individuals under 21 years of age to purchase, consume, possess, be furnished with, or have alcohol in their systems, are included as exceptions, even if the exception is limited to 18+ year olds or to a certain type of alcohol (e.g., light wine or beer). Such conditions and limitations that apply to exceptions identified in the comparison tables are described in Row Notes and/or Jurisdiction Notes accessible from the body of the table via links in the Jurisdiction column.
     
  4. Some State statutes and regulations provide exceptions for minors married to a "legal age spouse" while others simply refer to a "spouse." APIS codes both of these wordings as exceptions under "spouse." In addition, statutes or regulations may provide an exception when a "family member" or "relative" is present or consents. When a statute or regulation is unclear as to which family members or relatives must be present and/or consent, APIS assumes that parents, guardians, and spouses are all included. A Row or Jurisdiction Note is included in such instances.
     
  5. This review does not include the following items related to underage drinking and access to alcohol:
    • State and Federal laws related to enforcement and penalties.
    • Provisions specific to beer containing not more than 3.2 percent alcohol by weight.
    • Provisions that are specific to parks (other than national parks as described on the Federal Law page).
    • Provisions that are specific to school or university property.
    • Separate laws for the military or for Indian reservations. Approximately 200 tribes across the Nation have jurisdiction and responsibility for laws affecting their reservations. Many have passed their own laws regarding underage drinking and access to alcohol.

 

Explanatory Notes and Limitations Applicable to All APIS Policy Topics

  1. State law may permit local jurisdictions to impose requirements in addition to those mandated by State law. Alternatively, State law may prohibit local legislation on this topic, thereby preempting local powers. APIS does not document policies established by local governments.
     
  2. In addition to statutes and regulations, judicial decisions (case law) also may affect alcohol-related policies. APIS does not review case lawexcept to determine whether judicial decisions have invalidated statutes or regulations that would otherwise affect the data presented in the comparison tables.
     
  3. APIS reviews published administrative regulations. However, administrative decisions or directives that are not included in a State's published regulatory codes may have an impact on implementation. This possibility has not been addressed by the APIS research. 
     
  4. Statutes and regulations cited in tables on this policy topic may have been amended or repealed after the specific date or time period specified by the site user's search criteria.
     
  5. A comprehensive understanding of the data presented in the comparison tables for this policy topic requires examination of the applicable Row Notes and Jurisdiction Notes, which can be accessed from the body of the table via links in the Jurisdiction column.

 

Expander Federal Law for Underage Purchase of Alcohol

 (Policies in effect on: 1/1/2013)

The 21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides each State with the primary authority to regulate the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages within its borders. Courts have provided varying interpretations of the extent of this authority, particularly its interaction with the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution. For more information about the 21st Amendment and the Interstate Commerce Clause, see the About Alcohol Policy section of the APIS Web Site.
 
The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, [23 U.S.C. § 158], requires that States prohibit persons under 21 years of age from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages as a condition of receiving State highway funds. A Federal regulation that interprets the Act excludes from the definition of "public possession," possession "for an established religious purpose; when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older; for medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution; in private clubs or establishments; or to the sale, handling, transport, or service in dispensing of any alcoholic beverage pursuant to lawful employment of a person under the age of twenty-one years by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer of alcoholic beverages." [23 C.F.R. § 1208.3]
 
Generally, minimum drinking age laws on Federal properties are the same as the State where such property is located, with some exceptions for military installations.
 
The National Park Service prohibits possession of alcohol by a minor or furnishing alcohol to a minor, except where allowed by State law. [36 C.F.R. § 2.35] This regulation also provides that "[i]n a State where a lower minimum age is established, that age limit will apply. . . ."
 
Similarly, the minimum age to purchase, possess or consume alcoholic beverages on military installations is the same as the State where the installation is located, but this requirement may be waived by the commanding officer of a military installation in special circumstances. [10 U.S.C. § 2683] Moreover, if the military installation is located in more than one State or within one State but within 50 miles of another State, Mexico or Canada, the minimum age may be set at the lowest minimum drinking age.
 
There is no Federal law specific to underage drinking and access to alcohol on Indian reservations. Indian tribes are domestic dependent sovereigns that have the right of self-government. As such, approximately 200 tribes across the nation have enacted their own laws for underage drinking and access to alcohol.   

 
FEDERAL CITATIONS AND RELEVANT TEXT EXCERPTS 
 
United States Code
Title 23 - HIGHWAYS
CHAPTER 1 - FEDERAL-AID HIGHWAYS
§ 158. National minimum drinking age
 
(a) Withholding of Funds for Noncompliance.—
 
(1) In general.—The Secretary shall withhold 10 per centum of the amount required to be apportioned to any State under each of sections 104(b)(1), 104(b)(3), and 104(b)(4) of this title on the first day of each fiscal year after the second fiscal year beginning after September 30, 1985, in which the purchase or public possession in such State of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than twenty-one years of age is lawful.
 
(2) State grandfather law as complying.—If, before the later of (A) October 1, 1986, or (B) the tenth day following the last day of the first session the legislature of a State convenes after the date of the enactment of this paragraph, such State has in effect a law which makes unlawful the purchase and public possession in such State of any alcoholic beverage by a person who is less than 21 years of age (other than any person who is 18 years of age or older on the day preceding the effective date of such law and at such time could lawfully purchase or publicly possess any alcoholic beverage in such State), such State shall be deemed to be in compliance with paragraph (1) in each fiscal year in which such law is in effect.
 
(b) Effect of Withholding of Funds.—No funds withheld under this section from apportionment to any State after September 30, 1988, shall be available for apportionment to that State.
 
(c) Alcoholic Beverage Defined.—As used in this section, the term “alcoholic beverage” means—
 
(1) beer as defined in section 5052(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986,
 
(2) wine of not less than one-half of 1 per centum of alcohol by volume, or
 
(3) distilled spirits as defined in section 5002(a)(8) of such Code.
 
 
Code of Federal Regulations
Title 23 - Highways
CHAPTER II - NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMINISTRATION AND FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
SUBCHAPTER B - GUIDELINES
PART 1208 - NATIONAL MINIMUM DRINKING AGE
§ 1208.3. Definitions
 
As used in this part:
 
Alcoholic beverage means beer, distilled spirits and wine containing one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume. Beer includes, but is not limited to, ale, lager, porter, stout, sake, and other similar fermented beverages brewed or produced from malt, wholly or in part or from any substitute therefor. Distilled spirits include alcohol, ethanol or spirits or wine in any form, including all dilutions and mixtures thereof from whatever process produced.
 
Public possession means the possession of any alcoholic beverage for any reason, including consumption on any street or highway or in any public place or in any place open to the public (including a club which is de facto open to the public). The term does not apply to the possession of alcohol for an established religious purpose; when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older; for medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution; in private clubs or establishments; or to the sale, handling, transport, or service in dispensing of any alcoholic beverage pursuant to lawful employment of a person under the age of twenty-one years by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler, or retailer of alcoholic beverages.
 
Purchase means to acquire by the payment of money or other consideration.
 
 
Code of Federal Regulations
Title 36 - Parks, Forests, and Public Property
CHAPTER I - NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
PART 2 - RESOURCE PROTECTION, PUBLIC USE AND RECREATION
§ 2.35. Alcoholic beverages and controlled substances
 
(a) Alcoholic beverages.
 
(1) The use and possession of alcoholic beverages within park areas is allowed in accordance with the provisions of this section.
 
(2) The following are prohibited:
 
(i) The sale or gift of an alcoholic beverage to a person under 21 years of age, except where allowed by State law. In a State where a lower minimum age is established, that age limit will apply for purposes of this subparagraph.
 
(ii) The possession of an alcoholic beverage by a person under 21 years of age, except where allowed by State law. In a State where a lower minimum age is established, that age will apply for purposes of this subparagraph.
 
(3)(i) The superintendent may close all or a portion of a public use area or public facility within a park area to the consumption of alcoholic beverages and/or to the possession of a bottle, can or other receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage that is open, or that has been opened, or whose seal is broken or the contents of which have been partially removed. Provided however, that such a closure may only be implemented following a determination made by the superintendent that:
 
(A) The consumption of an alcoholic beverage or the possession of an open container of an alcoholic beverage would be inappropriate considering other uses of the location and the purpose for which it is maintained or established; or
 
(B) Incidents of aberrant behavior related to the consumption of alcoholic beverages are of such magnitude that the diligent application of the authorities in this section and §§ 1.5 and 2.34 of this chapter, over a reasonable time period, does not alleviate the problem.
 
(ii) A closure imposed by the superintendent does not apply to an open container of an alcoholic beverage that is stored in compliance with the provisions of § 4.14 of this chapter.
 
(iii) Violating a closure imposed pursuant to this section is prohibited.
 
(b) Controlled substances. The following are prohibited:
 
(1) The delivery of a controlled substance, except when distribution is made by a practitioner in accordance with applicable law. For the purposes of this paragraph, delivery means the actual, attempted or constructive transfer of a controlled substance whether or not there exists an agency relationship.
 
(2) The possession of a controlled substance, unless such substance was obtained by the possessor directly, or pursuant to a valid prescription or order, from a practitioner acting in the course of professional practice or otherwise allowed by Federal or State law.
 
(c) Presence in a park area when under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance to a degree that may endanger oneself or another person, or damage property or park resources, is prohibited.
 
 
United States Code
Title 10 - ARMED FORCES
Subtitle A - General Military Law
PART IV - SERVICE, SUPPLY, AND PROCUREMENT
CHAPTER 159 - REAL PROPERTY; RELATED PERSONAL PROPERTY; AND LEASE OF NON-EXCESS PROPERTY
§ 2683. Relinquishment of legislative jurisdiction; minimum drinking age on military installations
 
(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary concerned may, whenever he considers it desirable, relinquish to a State, or to a Commonwealth, territory, or possession of the United States, all or part of the legislative jurisdiction of the United States over lands or interests under his control in that State, Commonwealth, territory, or possession. Relinquishment of legislative jurisdiction under this section may be accomplished (1) by filing with the Governor (or, if none exists, with the chief executive officer) of the State, Commonwealth, territory, or possession concerned a notice of relinquishment to take effect upon acceptance thereof, or (2) as the laws of the State, Commonwealth, territory, or possession may otherwise provide.
 
(b) The authority granted by subsection (a) is in addition to and not instead of that granted by any other provision of law.
 
(c)(1) Except as provided in paragraphs (2) and (3), the Secretary concerned shall establish and enforce as the minimum drinking age on a military installation located in a State the age established by the law of that State as the State minimum drinking age.
 
(2)(A) In the case of a military installation located—
 
(i) in more than one State; or
 
(ii) in one State but within 50 miles of another State or Mexico or Canada,
 
the Secretary concerned may establish and enforce as the minimum drinking age on that military installation the lowest applicable age.
 
(B) In subparagraph (A), the term “lowest applicable age” means the lowest minimum drinking age established by the law—
 
(i) of a State in which a military installation is located; or
 
(ii) of a State or jurisdiction of Mexico or Canada that is within 50 miles of such military installation.
 
(3)(A) The commanding officer of a military installation may waive the requirement of paragraph (1) if such commanding officer determines that the exemption is justified by special circumstances.
 
(B) The Secretary of Defense shall define by regulations what constitute special circumstances for the purposes of this paragraph.
 
(4) In this subsection:
 
(A) The term “State” includes the District of Columbia.
 
(B) The term “minimum drinking age” means the minimum age or ages established for persons who may purchase, possess, or consume alcoholic beverages.
 
 

 

Source for all citations on this page: FDsys, the Federal Digital System of the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).
Excerpts from the United States Code are current as of 2012. Excerpts from the Code of Federal Regulations are current as of 2013.  Excerpts from Public Laws of Congress are current as of the year of enactment.
The GPO’s Public Domain/Copyright Notice is available under the Policies heading at
http://www.gpo.gov/help/index.html .

 

 

Expander Selected References for Underage Purchase of Alcohol

  1. Fagan, A.A., Hawkins, J.D., and Catalano, R.F. Engaging communities to prevent underage drinking. Alcohol Research & Health 34(2):167-74, 2011.
     
  2. Gruenewald, P.J. Regulating Availability: How access to alcohol affects drinking and problems in youth and adults. Alcohol Research & Health 34(2):248-256, 2011.
     
  3. Hingson, R.W. The legal drinking age and underage drinking in the United States. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 163(7):598-600, 2009.
     
  4. Montgomery, J.M., Foley, K.L., and Wolfson, M. Enforcing the minimum drinking age: State, local and agency characteristics associated with compliance checks and Cops in Shops programs. Addiction 101(2):223-231, 2006.
     
  5. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Interventions for alcohol use and alcohol use disorders in youth. Alcohol Research & Health 28(3):163-174, 2004/2005.
     
  6. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2004.
     
  7. Norberg, K.E., Bierut, L.J., and Richard, A.G. Long-term effects of minimum drinking age laws on past-year alcohol and drug use disorders. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 33(12), 2009.
     
  8. Paschall, M.J., Grube, J.W., Black, C., and Ringwalt, C.L. Is commercial alcohol availability related to adolescent alcohol sources and alcohol use? Findings from a multi-level study. Journal of Adolescent Health 41(2):168-174, 2007.
     
  9. Toomey, T.L., Fabian, L.E.A., Erickson, D.J., and Lenk, K.M. Propensity for obtaining alcohol through shoulder tapping. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research 31(7):1218-1223, 2007.
     
  10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking. Rockville, MD: Office of the Surgeon General, 2007. Accessed August 21, 2012 at: http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/underagedrinking/.
     
  11. Wagenaar, A.C., Lenk, K.M., and Toomey, T.L. Policies to reduce underage drinking: A review of the recent literature. In: Galanter, M. (Ed.), Recent Developments in Alcoholism, Vol. 17: Alcohol Problems in Adolescents and Young Adults. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 277-297, 2005.
     
  12. Williams, R.S., and Ribisl, K.M. Internet Alcohol sales to minors. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine [Epub ahead of print], May 7, 2012.

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