What's The Legal Drinking Age In European Countries?

By Victoria Simpson on July 12 2020 in Society

Image credit: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com
  • Germany has one of the lowest legal drinking ages in Europe, allowing youth to drink alcohol at 14 when accompanied by an adult.
  • The legal drinking age in the US is 21, which is older than that of every country in Europe.
  • An older legal drinking age has been linked with less alcohol dependency in later life, and fewer fatal car accidents in teenage years.

Humans have been consuming alcohol since ancient times, and perhaps even before. The earliest evidence we have of people drinking alcohol is in wine jars that date back to 7000 BC in ancient China. Did they have a legal drinking age back then? This is unknown, but what is suspected is that those drinking this early rice wine probably liked to indulge in it as much as wine lovers of today love a glass full of rich, old, expensive Chardonnay.  

People now drink alcohol made from wheat, rye, potatoes, rice, grapes, berries, sugar cane, and everything in between. In the US, the legal drinking age is determined at a national level. At the time of this writing, it is 21 years of age. 

In all European countries, the legal drinking age is less than this, running from about 15 years old up to 20. Here is a look at the legal drinking age in European countries in more detail, and whether a younger drinking age or an older one is generally beneficial for society. 

European Drinking Ages 

Oktoberfest celebrations in Munich, Germany. Image credit: Anandoart/Shutterstock.com

The legal drinking age varies across Europe. Some places have a variety of legal ages in relation to alcohol, depending on the type of alcohol being consumed, where it is being done, and whether or not a person is simply purchasing the alcohol or also drinking it. The youngest legal age associated with alcohol in Europe is in Germany. Here, a minor can drink undistilled alcohol like wine or beer at 14 years old, if they are accompanied by what is called a Custodial Person, (ie their parents or another adult who is in charge of their welfare). You need to be 18, however, to drink spirits in Germany, and 16 to drink beer and wine on your own. 

In Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, and Denmark, you can also drink beer and wine at 16 years, and you must be 18 to drink harder alcohol such as distilled spirits. In Denmark you also must be 18 to be served in a restaurant, pub, or bar. 

In the UK, you can consume alcohol on private property at 15 years of age, and you must be 18 to drink in public on your own, and to buy alcohol. 

In Cyprus, Greece, and Malta the legal drinking age is 17. 

Countries with a legal drinking age at the top end of the scale include Lithuania and Iceland at 20. 

Italy’s official legal drinking age is a bit of a mystery. Many people allow minors to have a sip of wine at meals. Some sources say the legal age is 16 others, 18. If you are somewhere around these ages, you are probably OK to consume wine or beer in moderation in this country. 

Interestingly, in Sweden you can actually consume legally alcohol at any age at home, but you must be 18 to order it in a restaurant or bar, and 20 to actually purchase it.   

In all other European countries, the legal age to drink alcohol is 18. When in doubt, ask the locals of course, or the person serving you. 

Is Older Or Younger Better?

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There is some debate over whether a younger legal drinking age is better in the long run for the wellbeing of youth and others, or if it is more beneficial to delay it. Some say that by allowing youth to drink at 18 (or even 16) that parents and community members end up playing a greater role in teaching youth how to drink responsibly. When the legal drinking age is delayed until someone is 21 years of age, some argue that the individual is left more to their own devices. This can present a large learning curve, and result in more dangerous drinking. 

People have also argued that when countries or states have a legal drinking age of 21 that it breeds disrespect for the law, as many youth want to break it by drinking alcohol before their 21st birthday. Finally, some research shows that when the legal drinking age is 21, fewer youth are drinking but those who are are indulging in dangerous binge drinking at higher rates. 

All this being partially true, statistics present a strong case in favor of a delayed legal drinking age. A legal drinking age of 21 has been shown to reduce the number of people who develop an alcohol dependency later in life. A later drinking age also protects youths and adolescents from the negative impact alcohol can have on the developing brain. And most importantly, a late legal drinking age saves lives. When the legal drinking age is 21, there are fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities in general, and specifically for 18 and 20 year-olds. 

The Drawbacks Of Heavy Drinking

When you are in your teenage years, your brain is still developing. Engaging in heavy drinking at this time can affect how the brain develops. It can cause cognitive impairment and deficits, as well as memory problems. In fact, while youths have better motor control when they have had too much to drink compared with adults, teens and young adults have more learning and memory problems when inebriated. This happens because in adolescence and into your mid-20s, your brain is maturing in the areas of decision-making and memory. This happens in the brain’s frontal lobe, which is the last area of the brain to mature. 

Research shows that over 90% of the alcohol young people consume happens when they are binge drinking, or bringing their blood alcohol level up to 0.08% or higher.  Studies also show that the more economic wealth a country has, the more alcohol they consume, and the more heavy drinking there is. In some circles, Europe has a reputation for promoting responsible drinking in its youths, but many engage in heavy drinking there. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than  one-fifth of the European population aged 15 and older reported drinking heavily at least once a week. 

In 2016, the country with the highest percentage of 15- to 19-year-olds reporting heavy episodic drinking was Luxembourg, with 54%, according to WHO. 

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