Higher Minimum Drinking Age Proven Effective

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27 years ago the federal minimum drinking age was set at 21 years old. Until then, state minimum ages varied, with some as low as 18. For those born in 1965, they were “legal” to drink for a year, then illegal for the next few years, then legal again. The arguments for 18 being the “right age” linked alcohol with the right to vote and be eligible for military draft. However, the arguments to raise the legal age have turned out to be correct, at least according to a soon to be released study.

The study (to appear in February in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research) follows those who were allowed to drink at 18 and compares them to those who had to wait until 21. The study authors also looked at differences between states when the minimum age differed.

"A number of adverse consequences were associated with lower drinking ages during the time periods that those laws were in effect, including elevated rates of suicide and homicide," said Grucza [one of the authors]. "In this study we found that youth who lived in states with lower drinking ages remain at elevated risk for suicide and homicide as adults. The effect seems to be specific for women."

Why were women impacted more than men? There is no clear answer. One reason may be that women followed the laws – meaning they were less likely to drink illegally. If the men were more likely to cross state lines or drink illegally, any difference in laws would be moot. However, this hasn’t been teased out of the data yet. One author does say, “While women are less likely overall to drink and develop alcohol use disorders compared to men, the consequences of drinking are often more harmful for women.”

Regardless of the specifics, lowering the drinking age seems to have lifelong effects. The study showed higher rates of depression that extended decades after the national law was in place. The population bubble under study will soon be retired and gradually be replaced by those who were never allowed to drink at 18. It will be interesting to see if suicide and homicide rates stay lower as a result.

The question now might be whether an even higher minimum age would improve outcomes even more. How about 25? Or 30? If this seems outrageous, remember there are communities where drinking isn’t allowed at any age. An interesting study would be to compare dry counties (and Alaskan villages without alcohol) along with religious communities that restrict alcohol to the population at large.

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