The Legal Drinking Age in Canada

Many Canadians wonder if 18 and 19 are too young

Three men in a pub
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The legal drinking age in Canada is the minimum age at which a person is allowed to buy and drink alcohol, and right now it is 18 for Alberta, Manitoba and Québec and 19 for the rest of the country. In Canada, each province and territory determines its own legal drinking age.

Legal drinking age in Canada's provinces and territories 

Growing Concern About Alcohol Overconsumption

A growing problem of rising and overconsumption of alcohol, particularly among young adults just at the legal drinking age, has raised alarms in Canada. 

Since about 2000 and the release of the Canada Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines in 2011, the first such national guidelines, many Canadians have been on a mission to reduce alcohol consumption across the board. Much research has been done on how harmful even moderate alcohol consumption can be and the serious long-term effects on young adults ages 18/19–24, when risky alcohol consumption peaks

The Effect of Canadian Drinking-Age Laws on Young Males

A 2014 study by a scientist with the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) Faculty of Medicine concludes that Canada’s drinking-age laws have a significant impact on youth mortality.

Writing in the international journal "Drug and Alcohol Dependence," Dr. Russell Callaghan, a UNBC Associate Professor of Psychiatry, argues that, when compared to Canadian males slightly younger than the minimum legal drinking age, young men who are just older than the drinking age have significant and abrupt increases in mortality, especially from injuries and motor vehicle accidents.

“This evidence demonstrates that drinking-age legislation has a significant effect on reducing mortality among youth, especially young males,” says Dr. Callaghan.

Currently, the minimum legal drinking age is 18 years of age in Alberta, Manitoba and Québec, and 19 in the rest of the country. Using national Canadian death data from 1980 to 2009, researchers examined the causes of deaths of individuals who died between 16 and 22 years of age. They found that immediately following the minimum legal drinking age, male deaths due to injuries rose sharply by 10 to 16 per cent, and male deaths due to motor vehicle accidents increased suddenly by 13 to 15 per cent.

Increases in mortality appeared, too, immediately following the legislated drinking age for 18-year-old females, but these jumps were relatively small.

According to the research, increasing the drinking age to 19 in Alberta, Manitoba and Québec would prevent seven deaths of 18-year-old men each year. Raising the drinking age to 21 across the country would prevent 32 annual deaths of male youth 18 to 20 years old.

“Many provinces, including British Columbia, are undertaking alcohol-policy reforms,” Dr. Callaghan said. “Our research shows that there are substantial social harms associated with youth drinking.

These adverse consequences need to be carefully considered when we develop new provincial alcohol policies. I hope these results will help inform the public and policy makers in Canada about the serious costs associated with hazardous drinking among young people.”

High Canadian Alcohol Prices Tempt Importers

There has been a movement to encourage lower consumption by increasing or maintaining the overall price of alcohol through interventions such as excise taxes and indexing prices to inflation. Such pricing, according to the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse, would "encourage production and consumption of lower-strength" alcoholic beverages. Establishing minimum prices, the CCSA said, could "remove inexpensive sources of alcohol often favored by young adults and other high-risk drinkers."

Higher prices are seen as a disincentive to youth drinking, but lower-priced alcohol is readily available across the border in the United States.

Both visitors and Canadians are tempted to bring in large quantities of alcoholic beverages bought in the United States, which can be about half the price of such drinks in Canada. 

How Much Duty-Free Alcohol Can Canadians and Visitors Bring to Canada?

If you are a Canadian or a visitor to Canada, you are allowed to bring a small quantity of alcohol (wine, liquor, beer or coolers) into the country without having to pay duty or taxes as long as:

  • the alcohol accompanies you
  • you meet the minimum legal drinking age for the province or territory at which you enter Canada. 

Canadians and visitors may bring in only one of the following. If larger quantities are imported, the entire amount will assessed duties, not just the amount exceeding these duty-free quantities:

  • 1.5 litres (50.7 US fluid ounces) of wine, including wine coolers over 0.5 percent alcohol. This is equivalent to (up to) 53 fluid ounces or two 750 ml bottles of wine. OR
  • 1.14 litres (38.5 US fluid ounces) of liquor. This is equivalent to (up to) 40 fluid ounces or one large standard bottle of liquor. OR
  • Up to 8.5 liters of beer or ale, including beer coolers with more than 0.5 percent alcohol. This is equivalent to 287.4 US fluid ounces or about 24 cans or bottles (355 ml or 12.004 US fluid ounces each).

For Canadians returning after a stay in the US, the amount of personal exemption is dependent on how long an individual was out of the country; the highest exemptions accrue after stays of more than 48 hours. If Canadians have been on a day trip to the United States, all the alcohol brought back to Canada will be subject to the usual duties and taxes. In 2012, Canada changed exemption limits to more closely match those of the U.S.