In most countries, there is a legal drinking age: 21 in the U.S., 18 in most European countries. I've always been told that legal drinking age is in place because alcohol has harmful effects on underage people. I've never been told what these harmful effects are, though. I've also questioned sometimes if this is true or not.

Does alcohol have harmful effects on underage (say under 18) children? If so, what are the effects?

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    18 is the age for drinking in public. In my country (UK) and possible most of Europe, you are allowed to drink from age 5+ in your home (although nobody is going to be caught for younger than that). You are also (interestingly) allowed to drink in public from 16, as long as you have a meal and an adult.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 6, 2015 at 8:21
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    The US has a lot of variance as well from state to state as far as minimum age by yourself, with someone, with a meal, in residence, etc.
    – JohnP
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 16:27
  • @JohnP in practice the US has a lot of variance, but there's only one minimum legal age.
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 2:38
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    @Zaralynda - Federally, yes. It's tied to the funding that the states get for roads. But legally people under 21 can drink in certain situations related to religion, parental consent, location. They still can't purchase, however. For example, Colorado allows minor consumption with parental consent.and presence: alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/APIS_State_Profile.html?state=CO
    – JohnP
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 3:16

1 Answer 1


Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant.

Drinking under-age increases alcohol risks in later life. Research shows the brain keeps developing well into the twenties, during which time it continues to establish important communication connections and further refines its function and studies show that young people who drink heavily may put themselves at risk for a range of potential health problems.

Extreme alcohol consumption can cause memory loss, loss of coordination and alcohol poisoning, in some cases can be fatal.

Health risks associated with drinking include:

  • brain effects,

    Alcohol interferes with communication between nerve cells and all other cells limiting the ability to think clearly.

    First alcohol affects the forebrain responsible for motor coordination and decision making. Secondly it knocks out the midbrain, so you lose control over emotions and you've more chances of black outs.

    How alcohol attacks the brain

    Image credits: The Immortal Alcoholic

    Research has shown that animals fed alcohol during this critical developmental stage continue to show long-lasting impairment from alcohol as they age2002. Subtle changes in the brain may be difficult to detect but still have a significant impact on long-term thinking and memory skills.NIH

  • liver effects,

    Every time you drink, your liver has to filter it out of your blood and a lot of alcohol over a short period of time (BAC) won't give enough time for the body to process it all.

    In addition persons below the age of 25 and women may process alcohol more slowlywiki.

    Elevated liver enzymes, indicating some degree of liver damage, have been found in some adolescents who drink alcohol2001.

    Young drinkers who are overweight or obese showed elevated liver enzymes even with only moderate levels of drinking2000.

  • growth and endocrine effects,

    Consuming alcohol largely affects the body's endocrine system resulting in changes of various hormone levels which can disrupt a normal growth.

    Drinking alcohol during puberty period of rapid growth and development may upset the critical hormonal balance necessary for normal development of organs, muscles, and bones. Studies in animals also show that consuming alcohol during puberty adversely affects the maturation of the reproductive system2001.

    See: Alcohol and cortisol at Wikipedia

Source: Underage Drinking at NIAAA

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    Could you expand on these quotes? We don't want a site that is just an exact regurgitation of sites anyone can find on Google. Please do something to make this answer stand out, or it may risk deletion. Thanks :)
    – michaelpri
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 4:41
  • @michaelpri Improved answer.
    – kenorb
    Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 10:50
  • There seems to be a problem with one of your quotes: "Research has shown that animals fed alcohol …" links to an e-mail survey about "alcohol-induced blackouts among college students". Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 12:33
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    I suspect that the original reference is wrong. If so, ideally it should be corrected on the NIH page. Maybe an expert could check the reference? Commented Apr 23, 2015 at 12:48
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    Alcohol is also carcinogenic to humans. According to this Wikipedia article, 3.6% of all cancer cases and 3.5% of cancer deaths worldwide are attributable to consumption of alcohol.
    – Garrett
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 7:28

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