Age 21 Drinking Law Reduces Alcohol-Related Deaths

Contributed by: Community Coalition for Safe and Healthy Morris

Although some want to lower the legal drinking age from 21, research continues to show that the law saves lives. In a supplemental issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers found that the age 21 and over alcohol laws are associated with lower rates of drunk-driving crashes among young people. And it seems they also curb 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 lead researcher William DeJong, Ph.D., of Boston University School of Public Health.

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 the trend. A change in federal law eventually pushed all states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 by 1988. In recent years however, the benefits of the age-21 law have been challenged.

In 2006, a non-profit called Choose Responsibility started campaigning for a change in the federal law. Two years later, a group of more than 100 U.S. university presidents and chancellors known as the Amethyst Initiative called for a re-evaluation of the legal drinking age—citing a “clandestine” culture of heavy drinking episodes among college students as one reason that the age-21 law is not working. Those moves grabbed a lot of media attention, and public health experts responded by launching new studies into the impact of the drinking-age law. Based on DeJong’s review, that 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 in 2011, 36 percent of college students said in the past two weeks they’d engaged in heavy episodic drinking (five or more drinks in a sitting, sometimes called “binge” drinking). 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.

Education can help discourage underage drinking. Often, youths buy into the myth, for instance, that “everyone is doing it,” when in fact that is not the case. There are many young people who do wait until they are 21 to drink. Providing a realistic picture of true “drinking norms” can be an effective prevention and harm reduction strategy.

 

To reduce the incidence of underage drinking, parents must understand the seriousness of the problem and talk with their children about choices and consequences. For more tips on how to start the conversation, visit our website at safehealthymorris.org or find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ccshmorris/