Safety First: Got To Be 21 to Drink

Binge drinking worse in people who came of age when drinking ages were lower

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) At 18 years of age, Americans are considered legal adults with rights and responsibilities. So why is 21 the legal drinking age? The tendency to binge drink may have something to do with it.

A recent study looked at drinking habits in people who grew up in states with lower minimum drinking ages in the 1970s and 1980s.

Researchers found that people who lived in states with lower minimum drinking ages (18 or 19 years of age) drank the same amount of alcohol per year as people who lived in states with a minimum age of 21. But binge drinking episodes in both early and later adulthood were more common among those in states with the lower minimum drinking age. 

"Binge drinking is bad for your health."

Andrew D. Plunk, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow in psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, led an investigation into the effects of lower legal drinking ages on drinking habits later in life.

After the end of prohibition in 1933, each state had the right to decide what they wanted the minimum age to be for the legal drinking age. By the 1970s, many, but not all, states allowed men and women to legally drink at 18 or 19 years of age. Later, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states in America to have a minimum drinking age of 21.

Researchers wanted to know whether people who turned 18 or 19 in states with lower minimum drinking ages in the 1970s or 1980s had different drinking habits than people who were not legally allowed to drink until 21 years of age.

For the study, researchers looked at survey data on drinking habits from 24,088 people born between the years 1949 and 1972. Researchers pulled data from the 1991-1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey and the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions from 2001-2002.

Survey questions asked about each person’s average daily alcohol consumption, frequency of binge drinking episodes and frequency of days of drinking without binge drinking. Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting.

Results of the study showed that having lower minimum drinking ages of 18 or 19 did not affect the number of days a person drank, the average number of drinks a person drank or whether a person drank at all.

Results did show that people who turned 18 or 19 in states with lower minimum drinking ages had 15 percent greater odds of binge drinking more than once per month compared to people in states where the drinking age was 21. The odds increased to 19 percent for men and 31 percent for people who did not go to college. These results were consistent for early adulthood and later adulthood.

“It wasn’t just that lower minimum drinking ages had a negative impact on people when they were young. Even decades later, the ability to legally purchase alcohol before age 21 was associated with more frequent binge drinking,” said Dr. Plunk.

Binge drinking has been associated with poor health and problem drinking behavior in previous studies. The authors concluded that early adulthood binge drinking could turn into later adulthood binge drinking, which is a major public health concern.

This study was published in January in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Funding was provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institutes of Health. Study co-author Dr. Laura J. Bierut holds a US Patent for “Markers for Addiction.” No other conflicts of interest were declared.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 13, 2013
Last Updated:
February 16, 2013