One Bad Side Effect of Lowering the Drinking Age

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High School Youths
Photo: Anders Ryman/Corbis

People frequently argue that the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to, say, 18. Twenty-one is high relative to the rest of the world, and the thinking goes that outlawing alcohol until kids are 21 promotes irresponsible behavior and a culture of binge drinking. It’s an argument that feels right, but some public-health researchers disagree. As a team led by Dr. Andrew D. Plunk of the Eastern Virginia Medical School writes in a new article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, lower drinking ages have also been linked to “increases in teen traffic fatalities, decreased educational attainment, and even higher rates of alcohol use disorder and heavy drinking later in life.”

The basic idea is that (all things being equal) the earlier it is that someone starts drinking, the more likely it is that bad things will result. To expand on this idea, the authors decided to examine whether and to what extent lower drinking ages can be linked to higher high-school dropout rates — the idea being that in states with lower drinking ages, kids could find peers to buy alcohol for them, increasing the likelihood that alcohol would derail their lives. 

The authors used two data sets containing a total of almost 4 million people to see what happened to people born between 1960 and 1969 during the 12-year span between 1978 and 1987, a time of many changes in state minimum-drinking-age laws. This allowed them to attempt to carefully control for all other factors and look only at the differences in dropout rates between those in states with drinking ages of 21 and those with various lower ones.

The results, as summed up at the top of the paper:

Only the [drinking age] of 18 predicted high school dropout. Exposure was associated with 4% and 13% higher odds of high school dropout for the census and NLAES/NESARC samples, respectively. We noted greater impact on women (5%–18%), Blacks (5%–19%), and Hispanics (6%). Self-report of parental alcohol problems was associated with 40% higher odds, which equals a 4.14-point increase in dropout rate for that population.

One study relying on just two data sets can’t tell the whole story, but these results suggest a couple of things, neither of which is surprising. One is that, if people decided 21 was too high a drinking age, lowering it to 19 or 20 might bring with it less “collateral damage” than lowering it all the way to 18. The other is that the effects won’t be evenly distributed among the population — it’ll be those kids already at risk of having alcohol problems who will more likely be affected. Like most big public-policy changes, lowering the drinking age probably wouldn’t be as simple or as clean as it sounds to many of us.