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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 11 | December 27, 2008 Subscribe

Push to lower drinking age ignores 30 years of research

The following is an excerpt from a 2007 presentation by Institute president Adrian Lund at "Protecting teens from the dangers of alcohol use and abuse: wishful thinking versus science," convened by MADD, the American Medical Association, and the Institute.

If it's crystal clear that retaining 21 as the minimum drinking age in U.S. states reduces crashes and prevents deaths, who's disagreeing? A grassroots group calling itself Choose Responsibility, for one. Organized in 2007 by John M. McCardell Jr., former president of Middlebury College, this group favors rolling back the drinking age to 18, saying we need "a fresh approach" because 21 has pushed college drinking underground and encouraged students to binge. McCardell also inspired the Amethyst Initiative, a coalition of chancellors and presidents of U.S. colleges and universities that wants to rethink 21.

McCardell asserts that proponents of 21 "cannot offer a cause and effect relationship" between this policy and its benefits, but this assertion ignores 30 years of research. It also sells short efforts to reduce underage drinking by vigorous enforcement of 21 policies. In one example, Marshall University and the city of Huntington, W.Va., showed they could reduce underage alcohol purchases and curb alcohol-impaired driving among both teens and young adults (see "Campaign spurs big drop in night drinking and driving," July 24, 2008).

McCardell's "fresh approach" would replace the 21 drinking age with teen education about responsible alcohol use. There's no evidence that education would be effective and plenty of experience with teen driver education that warns this approach could backfire. Although millions of teens take driver education, research shows it doesn't reduce their crashes. In fact, it increases them. This increase is an unintended consequence of education encouraging earlier licensure — more than offsetting any improvement in driving skill.

Driver education isn't without benefits. It can help people learn driving skills and understand traffic laws, but it isn't an effective public health strategy because it doesn't reduce crashes (see Status Report special issue: what works and doesn't work to improve highway safety, May 19, 2001). In the same way, we can expect drinking education to give us teenagers who know more about alcohol and laws about drinking and driving — and who also drink more so they get behind the wheel more often after consuming alcohol.

Higher drinking age saves lives

An Institute review of the research confirms that the establishment of 21 as the drinking age has reduced teen drinking, impaired driving and crash fatalities.

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