Lower drinking ages lead to more binge drinking

February 6, 2013
Lower drinking ages lead to more binge drinking
By 1975, many states had lowered the minimum legal drinking age from 21 (shown in yellow) to 18 (brown) or 19 (orange). Credit: Washington University School of Medicine

People who grew up in states where it was legal to drink alcohol before age 21 are more likely to be binge drinkers later in life, according to a study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The findings are available online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

The researchers tracked the long-term drinking behavior of more than 39,000 people who began consuming in the 1970s, when some states had legal drinking ages as low as 18.

"It wasn't just that lower minimum drinking ages had a negative impact on people when they were young," explains first author Andrew D. Plunk, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow in psychiatry. "Even decades later, the ability to legally purchase alcohol before age 21 was associated with more frequent binge drinking."

The video will load shortly
In the 1970s and early 1980s, some states lower their minimum legal drinking age below the age of 21. Those lower drinking ages have been linked to bad things, from traffic accidents to suicide attempts, and now Washington University alcoholism researchers have found that those who grew up in states that had lower drinking ages are more likely to binge drink later on in life. Credit: Washington University BioMed Radio

The study shows that people who lived in states with lower minimum drinking ages weren't more likely to consume more alcohol overall or to drink more frequently than those from states where the was 21, but when they did drink, they were more likely to drink heavily.

The effect was most pronounced among men who did not attend college. And the researchers say the findings should be a warning to those who advocate lowering the minimum drinking age.

"Binge drinking on college campuses is a very serious problem," Plunk says. "But it's also important not to completely forget about young people who aren't on college campuses. In our study, they had the greatest risk of suffering the long-term consequences linked to lower drinking ages."

Plunk and his colleagues found that even decades later, men who grew up in states with a legal drinking age lower than 21 were 19 percent more likely to binge drink more than once per month. Among those who didn't go to college, the odds of binging more than once a month increased by 31 percent.

Through surveys conducted in the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s, the researchers tracked the average daily alcohol intake, overall drinking frequency and the frequency of binge episodes—defined as five or more drinks during a single period of drinking for a man or four-plus drinks for a woman. They also looked at how often a person drank but did not binge, which is thought to be a less harmful drinking pattern.

"There's a difference between tracking average daily consumption of alcohol and measuring drinking patterns," explains senior author Richard A. Grucza, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry. "Merely tracking average daily consumption can hide harmful drinking patterns. Averaging one drink per day doesn't sound like much, but if that same person has all their drinks for the week in one sitting, well that's a potential problem."

Due to concerns about binge drinking on college campuses, some policymakers think that lowering the drinking age may encourage college students to moderate their alcohol use.

"The 'take away message' is that we need to consider all of the potential consequences of changing the drinking age," Plunk explains. "We shouldn't be too narrow in our focus when we think about how young people are affected by these laws. This study shows there's a large population that benefitted from a higher legal age. Laws apply to everyone, but if they are based only on the impact on one group like college students, we may end up forgetting about how those laws affect other people."

Explore further: Lower drinking ages can have an impact on later drinking patterns

More information: Plunk AD, Cavazos-Rehg P, Bierut LJ, Grucza RA. The persistent effects of minimum drinking age laws on drinking patterns later in life. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, vol. 37 (3), March 2013

Related Stories

Lower drinking ages can have an impact on later drinking patterns

January 22, 2013
Lower minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws have been associated with short-term effects such as a greater number of traffic fatalities and teen suicides. A new study has investigated the long-term and persistent linkages ...

Binge drinking serious problem for US women

January 8, 2013
Binge drinking is an under-recognized problem for US women, nearly 14 million of whom engage in it about three times a month, downing about six drinks each time, says a study released Tuesday.

Binge drinking by freshman women tied to sexual assault risk, according to new research

December 8, 2011
Many young women who steer clear of alcohol while they're in high school may change their ways once they go off to college. And those who take up binge drinking may be at relatively high risk of sexual assault, according ...

Recommended for you

Concern with potential rise in super-potent cannabis concentrates

July 21, 2017
University of Queensland researchers are concerned the recent legalisation of medicinal cannabis in Australia may give rise to super-potent cannabis concentrates with associated harmful effects.

Findings link aldosterone with alcohol use disorder

July 18, 2017
A new study led by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health, demonstrates that aldosterone, a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, may contribute ...

Depression among young teens linked to cannabis use at 18

July 17, 2017
A study looking at the cumulative effects of depression in youth, found that young people with chronic or severe forms of depression were at elevated risk for developing a problem with cannabis in later adolescence.

Why does prenatal alcohol exposure increase the likelihood of addiction?

July 7, 2017
One of the many negative consequences when fetuses are exposed to alcohol in the womb is an increased risk for drug addiction later in life. Neuroscientists in the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions are ...

Researchers say U.S. policies on drugs and addiction could use a dose of neuroscience

June 23, 2017
Tens of thousands of Americans die from drug overdoses every year – around 50,000 in 2015 – and the number has been steadily climbing for at least the last decade and a half, according to the National Institute on Drug ...

Study provides further support for genetic factors underlying addictions

June 13, 2017
Impairment of a particular gene raises increases susceptibility to opioid addiction liability as well as vulnerability to binge eating according to a new study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.