Higher drinking age lowers binge drinking for all except college students
Setting the national drinking age to 21 in 1984 brought about a steady decline in binge drinking in the general population—except in college students, a recent study found.
Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a night. While the study found significant reductions in binge drinking among 12- to 20-year olds since 1984—likely reflecting scarcer availability of alcohol to teenagers—young women maintained the same levels of drinking or, in the case of college women, began drinking more heavily.
The study, led by Washington University’s Richard Grucza, assistant professor of psychiatry, examined a national survey of drinking behavior conducted every year from 1979 to 2006 with a total of more than 500,000 subjects.
“We saw, on the whole, that binge drinking has gone down among individuals ages 12 to 20 considerably over the last 27 years,” Grucza said. “It’s been more or less a steady decline. The most dramatic drop-offs were seen in 15- to 17-year-old boys, whose heavy drinking fell almost 50 percent in those 27 years.”
On the other hand, 15- to 20-year-old females showed no change, and binging in 21- to 23-year-old women grew by about 40 percent.
“We think that probably has more to do with changes in gender roles in general—that is, women in general have started using more alcohol and drugs,” he said.
Betsy Foy, substance abuse specialist at Student Health Services, said the University has closely matched nationwide trends in the 12 years she has worked here. She said, however, that the University deviates from larger trends in some ways.
“Nationwide, varsity athletes tend to be high-risk drinkers,” Foy said. “Here, I haven’t found that. I think it might have to do with that we’re not a Division I NPAA school.”
Prior to 1984, the drinking age varied from state to state. While most states had a 21-year-old limit after the end of Prohibition, many states lowered the drinking age to 18 or 19 in the 1970s, according to James Fell, senior program director of the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation.
An increase in fatal alcohol-related traffic accidents involving youths in those states, however, prompted the federal government to incentivize states to set the legal age to 21.
The current study came about in part as a result of a recent coalescence, called the Amethyst Initiative, of university presidents who question the logic of the current drinking age.
“Their claim is that there’s an epidemic of binge drinking on college campuses, and they’re wondering if the minimum age has been effective,” Gruczo said. “We set out to look at some of the factual basis of what their rationale is for wanting to change the drinking age.”
The results of this study, published in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in July, may not provide a direct answer. The authors say their findings prove that the higher drinking age has been very good for public health.
But the results also support the belief that college campuses continue to cultivate dangerous drinking habits, and they are out of step with the rest of the nation.
So what is different about college campuses?
“A lot of unmarried people, people without children, will tend to have higher rates of binge drinking, and of course they’re concentrated at college campuses,” Grucza said. “And [there is a] mix of legal-age drinkers and non-legal-age drinkers in close physical proximity,” which leads to easier access to alcohol for minors.
Grucza’s research group is interested in early drinking because it is a strong predictor of alcohol dependence later in life. In addition, Grucza pointed out the strong correlation of alcohol use with sexual assault and harassment: about 70 percent of sexual assaults are alcohol related, he said.
“The federal government is actually putting quite a bit of money into researching this because college campuses are a problem environment,” Grucza said.
Foy also believed the higher age is a positive for public health.
“Since they raised the drinking age to 21, the number of DWIs has gone down,” she said. “They’ve shown nothing but good marks since they raised it to 21.”
Proponents of lowering the legal age, meanwhile, argue that countries in Europe and elsewhere enjoy a better drinking culture and fewer alcohol-associated problems as a result of lower drinking ages.
Jean-Charles Foyer, a senior who lived in a small village in Normandy, France, until entering the University, feels that without the excitement of secrecy, young people’s drinking is healthier and more open.
“I feel that drinking culture in European countries might be less focused on getting drunk as fast as possible and more focused on social drinking,” Foyer said. “Of course people will get inebriated but at a more reasonable pace.”
He also noted that drinking games, a known cause of binge drinking, are less popular in France.
Both Foy and Grucza, however, repudiated this perception.
“People will claim that Europe has low drinking rates and they don’t have the same problems, but that’s just not true,” Grucza said.
While fewer DWIs are given in some countries, he noted, this is most likely due to better public transportation and much harsher penalties, in some cases fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“But as far as underage drunkenness, underage binge drinking, alcohol poisoning, they have as many, if not more, problems than in the U.S.,” Grucza added.
Most recently, a drunk French 19-year-old took a nap between the rails of a train track on his way back from a music festival. He narrowly escaped death as a train rolled over his unconscious body without harming him. As the police tried to rouse him, Reuters reported, he “gave a one-fingered salute” and went back to sleep.
Foyer said he believes there is a very practical reason for the effect seen in the United States.
“The reason I think [binge drinking] went down in high school students here is just the fact that [the raised drinking age] made [alcohol] harder to get for them, whereas college students have easier access because there are people over 21,” he said.
In other words, if teenagers outside of college campuses could obtain alcohol more easily, they would still be binge drinking. The legal age has changed, but the nation’s drinking culture probably has not.