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Ask NOW: Can an underage person drink alcohol if they are with a parent?

June 4, 2013

Is there a rumor you've heard that you would like to track down? Is there something in the city — like playground equipment or a pothole — that needs to be fixed? NOW's Scottie Lee Meyers answers some of the mysteries of life in Brookfield and Elm Grove and helps solve everyday problems.

Can an underage person drink alcohol if they are with a consenting guardian?

Question: A reader was recently told that as long as mom or dad are around and give consent, those younger than 21 can be served a drink. He wants to know if state laws allow it.

Answer: On the surface, allowable underage drinking sounds like a rumor hatched by a few thirsty teenagers. But, in fact, Wisconsin does allow underage people to drink alcohol under certain circumstances.

People younger than 21 may possess and consume alcohol if they are with their parents, guardians or spouses of legal drinking age.

But not so fast young, elbow-benders. Even with parental permission, your right to go bottoms-up is at the discretion of the licensee, whether that be a restaurant or a tavern. The licensed premise may choose to prohibit consumption and possession of alcoholic beverages by minors.

As it turns out, most states in the U.S. allow for some type of exception. According to the Alcohol Policy Information System, a project of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, underage consumption of alcohol with parental consent is allowed in 29 states. Only Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, New Hampshire and West Virginia have no exceptions in their underage drinking laws. Other exceptions throughout the country are allowed for religious, medical and educational purposes.

All this talk of underage drinking could probably use some sobering up. The NIAAA reports that about 5,000 people younger than 21 die annually from motor vehicle crashes, other unintentional injuries, and homicides and suicides that involve underage drinking.

Some readers might recall being able to walk into a bar and legally drink at the age of 18.

But the federal government essentially made a last call on that policy in 1984, when Congress enacted the National Minimum Drink Age Act. That law required that a portion of federal highway funds be withheld from any state that does not prohibit people younger than 21 from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages.

The requirement was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but it ultimately held up. By 1988, every state had passed legislation to meet the federal funding requirements.

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