New Report on Minimum Drinking Age Makes Strong Case for Existing Laws

Posted on: February 26, 2014

In 2006, the nonprofit organization Choose Responsibility called for repealing the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which had led all 50 states to establish a minimum legal drinking age of 21, and allowing the states to lower their limit to 18.

Two years later, the organization assembled a small group of college and university presidents (the Amethyst Initiative) to call publicly for a critical reexamination of the law.

Those moves prompted public health experts to generate new research on the age 21 limit. Now, a comprehensive review of that research led by William DeJong, professor of community health sciences at BUSPH, provides strong evidence that the law is saving lives.

In a report titled “Case Closed: Research Evidence on the Positive Public Health Impact of the Age 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age in the United States,” published in a special supplement to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, DeJong and a colleague found that studies done since 2006—when the debate over age-21 laws flared up—have continued to demonstrate that the mandates work.

William DeJong

William DeJong

The laws are associated with lower rates of drunk-driving crashes among young people. There also is evidence that the age limit curbs other hazards of heavy drinking, including suicide, dating violence and unprotected sex.

“The evidence is clear that there would be consequences if we lowered the legal drinking age,” said DeJong, who was assisted by Jason Blanchette, a researcher with the BU school of medicine.

The U.S. legal drinking age has had a winding history. In the early 1970s, 29 states lowered their legal drinking age to 18, 19 or 20. But after a rise in drunk-driving crashes among young people, many states began to reverse course. A change in federal law eventually pushed all states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 by 1988.

But in recent years, the benefits of the age-21 law have been challenged.

Based on DeJong’s review, the recent research supports what earlier work had shown: Since the legal drinking age was set at 21, young people have been drinking less and are less likely to get into drunk-driving crashes.

In one study, researchers found that the rate of youth binge drinking has declined. In 2011, 36 percent of college students said they had engaged in heavy episodic drinking (five or more drinks in a sitting) in the previous two weeks. That compared with 43 percent of students in 1988, the first year that all U.S. states had an age-21 law. There was an even bigger decline among high school seniors—from 35 percent to 22 percent.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that the law has saved up to 900 lives a year in alcohol-related traffic deaths, according to the review.

DeJong acknowledged that many young people break the law and drink anyway. But he said the evidence shows that the law is working, despite that. Often, minors do not want to be caught drinking, and therefore take fewer risks—like getting behind the wheel.

Plus, DeJong said, “there are many young people who do wait until they’re 21 to drink.”

DeJong said that education can help to discourage underage drinking. Often, he said, youths buy into the myth that all college students engage in heavy drinking episodes. Giving them a more realistic picture of the true “drinking norms” can be effective, DeJong explained.

He said tougher enforcement of the age-21 law, rather than a repeal, is what’s needed. Clinical trials have found that when college towns put more effort into enforcing the law—and advertise that fact to students—student drinking declines.

“Some people assume that students are so hell-bent on drinking, nothing can stop them. But it really is the case that enforcement works,” DeJong said.

“Just because a law is commonly disobeyed doesn’t mean we should eliminate it.”

Submitted by Lisa Chedekel