Alcohol Laws: An Overview

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 08, 2023
4 min read

Alcohol laws regulate just about everything related to buying, selling, drinking, or serving alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, or liquor in the U.S.

Some alcohol laws are national, but others vary by state. States also allow some local communities to set or enforce certain rules about who can buy, sell, own, or drink alcohol.

According to national law, an alcoholic beverage is one that contains 0.05% or more alcohol, and most states follow that rule too.

Current alcohol laws cover:

  • Who can manufacture alcoholic beverages
  • Who can sell alcohol
  • Who’s allowed to buy or possess alcohol
  • Selling or giving alcohol to minors or anyone below the legal drinking age
  • How to punish people who break alcohol laws or commit alcohol-related crimes

Most state laws require you to show a picture ID, or identification card issued by the government, to buy alcohol. In most states, you must be at least 21 to serve alcohol, but some states allow you to serve alcohol in a restaurant if you’re 18 or over.

Laws about how much alcohol you must have in your system, or the blood alcohol concentration (BAC), to be considered intoxicated also vary by state. The national standard BAC is 0.08% alcohol measured in your breath, blood, or urine. States have different laws about how your BAC may be measured.

One important national alcohol law is the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1933. This amendment ended Prohibition, the national legal ban on alcohol that had been the law of the land since 1919. The 21st Amendment allowed states to pass their own laws about sales, distribution, import, and possession of alcohol.

Blue laws: Some of America’s earliest alcohol laws were “blue laws” that restricted activities on Sundays. In some places, laws to restrict alcohol sales on Sundays were passed for religious, moral, health, or public safety reasons, such as concerns about excessive drinking.

Blue laws didn’t curb alcohol sales by much: From 1990 to 2004, restrictions on alcohol sales on Sundays only reduced beer sales by 2.4% and liquor sales by 3.5%.

In recent years, states began to loosen blue laws. Since 2002, 16 states have changed their alcohol laws to allow some sales on Sundays.

Relaxed alcohol laws may contribute to a rise in drinking-related accidents and health problems. After New Mexico repealed its blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales in 1990, the state had 29% more alcohol-related car crashes and 42% more deaths in these crashes over the next 10 years.

Since 1984, the national minimum legal drinking age has been 21. Before 1984, each state had its own legal drinking age.

States that don’t follow the national minimum drinking age law can lose money. The federal government may withhold up to 10% of funds to that state to maintain highways.

The national minimum drinking age law may help save lives. Since the law was passed:

  • States that raised their legal drinking age had a 16% median drop in auto crashes since then.
  • Underage drinking rates dropped from 58% in 1985 to 40% by 1991.
  • There’s evidence that the law helps prevent young people from becoming dependent on alcohol and drugs, and lowers their risk of suicide, homicide, and serious pregnancy problems like premature delivery, birth defects, or miscarriage.

Even with this national law, underage drinking is still linked to serious health problems:

  • Heavy drinking is linked to 3,500 deaths among people under 21 every year.
  • Underage drinking may cause brain development lags or poor school performance.
  • Underage drinkers may be more likely to smoke, use drugs, engage in high-risk sex, commit suicide or sexual assault, become alcohol-dependent later in life, or die from alcohol poisoning, car crashes, or other accidents.

Some alcohol laws are set by states or local communities. Some state laws set a legal limit on the amount of alcohol per drink. Most states have laws that restrict happy hours, such as banning free alcoholic drinks with a food purchase in a restaurant or bar.

Blue laws still exist in specific places, including hundreds of “dry” counties where alcohol is banned outright. Some counties in states like Kentucky and Texas are called “moist,” because their laws allow beer and wine sales on Sundays, but not liquor sales.

Some states have unique alcohol laws:

  • North Carolina has a law that allows counties to sell alcohol on Sundays at 10 a.m., but not before, which is known as a “brunch law.”
  • Indiana passed a law that banned sale of cold beer at grocery and convenience stores to discourage underage drinking.
  • Some states only allow beer or wine that contains less than 3.2% alcohol to be sold on Sundays from stores, also called off-premises sales.

It’s not always illegal for people under 21 to drink. In 45 states, laws allow underage drinking in certain situations.

  • In 29 states, someone under 21 may drink with their parent’s permission if it’s in a private residence or on private property.
  • Six states allow someone under 21 to drink on private property without their parent’s consent.
  • Eight states allow underage people to drink with a parent’s consent in public restaurants or bars.
  • In 26 states, people under 21 may drink alcohol as part of religious services, such as a ceremony in your church.
  • In 16 states, underage people can drink alcohol if prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons.
  • In 11 states, you can drink under 21 if it’s for educational reasons, like you’re in cooking school.
  • Five states allow underage people to drink as part of government work, such as undercover police investigations.