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Research for Legal Drinking Age

Answer: Different activities have different ages of initiation: a person can drive a car at 16, participate in elections, serve in the army at 18, and serve as president at 35. These limitations are based on the demands of specific activities (e.g., motor skills, judgment, and experience) and take into account the risks and benefits of participation in different age groups (Fall, 1985). For example, research shows that adolescents are more likely to be impaired than adults at a certain blood alcohol level. Underage drinking is closely linked to serious public health problems, including injuries and deaths from car accidents, homicides, assaults and recreational injuries. As a result, policymakers and researchers have come to believe that the risk to youth and society in general can be reduced by excluding people under the age of 21 from alcohol consumption. New research shows that a minimum drinking age of 21 is associated with a lower rate of alcohol-related collisions among young adults, as well as a reduced risk of health problems associated with heavy drinking, including dating violence, unprotected sex and suicide. As mentioned earlier, only a tiny fraction of underage drinking cases result in fines or other penalties for establishments that sell alcohol. Reasons why law enforcement agencies do not cite or arrest illegal suppliers include (1) perceived acceptance of underage drinking by community members, (2) lack of community encouragement to strengthen MLDA enforcement, and (3) lack of resources (Wolfson et al., 1995). This research was funded in part by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism R01AA10426 and R01AA09142 to Alexander C.

Wagenaar. With evidence that a lower legal drinking age was associated with more youth traffic accidents, citizen advocacy groups led a movement to reinstate MLDA at age 21 in all states (Wolfson, 1995). In response, 16 states increased their MLDAs between September 1976 and January 1983 (Wagenaar 1983). However, many states resisted pressure from these groups, ignoring government incentives to increase their MLDAs (King, 1987). The federal government was concerned about the safety of young people in states with lower MLDAs and young people living in neighboring states. People who were below MLDA in their own state could cross state borders to purchase alcohol in a state with a lower MLDA and then return home, increasing the likelihood of being involved in traffic accidents. Question: If states are the only entities that have the right to set a minimum age for drinking, does federal law violate state powers in this area of alcohol? Question: How can researchers be sure that the decline in alcohol-related injury rates among 19- and 20-year-olds after the MLDA dropped to 21 is related to MLDA policies? The same arguments used 20 years ago to lower the MLDA are used today (see box, pp. 216-217). Despite ongoing debates about MLDA, research shows the effectiveness of a higher MLDA in preventing alcohol-related injuries and deaths in adolescents. As MLDAs have been lowered, injury and death rates have increased; As MLDAs increased, injuries and fatalities decreased significantly.

The benefits of using environmental approaches (i.e. external), such as the MLDA, are also supported by the fact that alcohol consumption rates were also reduced after the age of 21. In contrast, individual approaches (e.g., school curricula) have produced only short-term reductions in underage alcohol consumption. This finding suggests that environmental change strategies should be used to modify long-term change in adolescent alcohol use and alcohol-related problems. An article published today in the Huffington Post takes a closer look at the findings, given the arguments of some that the age limit does not deter excessive alcohol consumption and other health risks. In addition to increasing the application of the MLDA, other procedures and policies can be implemented to improve the effectiveness of the MLDA laws. To ensure that adults do not sell or supply alcohol to minors, public and institutional policies can be developed that complement the MLDA laws (Wagenaar et al. 1996a). For example, liquor establishments may implement a variety of policies and practices, including (1) requiring all liquor servers to receive training on responsible service to verify age identification and refuse sale to teens, (2) implementing server monitoring systems to prevent illegal sales to teens, and (3) implement warning labels (Wolfson et al., 1996a, b). Wolfson and colleagues (1996a,b) found that establishments that met these guidelines were less likely to sell alcohol to young women who appeared to be under 21 years of age and did not provide age identification.

Drinking and driving rates among teens have dropped 54 percent over the past two decades, and the largest declines were recorded between 1982 and 1995, a period that included changes in federal law pushing all states to raise their drinking age to 21. The public debate on lowering the legal drinking age has remained essentially unchanged since the lowering of the legal drinking age (MLDA) in the 1970s. Below are some frequently asked questions about MLDA, as well as answers based on previous research. Commercial establishments licensed to sell alcohol, as well as social sources, face criminal penalties, fines, licence suspensions and prosecution for selling or supplying alcohol to minors. Why do they still provide alcohol to teenagers? One reason for this is that policies are not actively enforced. For policies to effectively prevent certain behaviours, people must believe that they have a chance to get caught and face quick consequences if they do not comply (Gibbs, 1975; Ross, 1992). Wolfson and colleagues (1996b) found that only 38% of alcohol dealers surveyed thought they were likely to be cited for selling alcohol to minors. More research is needed to determine whether social sources are aware of their legal responsibility for providing alcohol to adolescents and whether they see a high likelihood of being punished for it. The methods used to study the effect of MLDA on alcohol consumption varied widely, contributing to different conclusions between studies. For example, some studies used convenience samples, such as students in introductory psychology courses, while other studies used sophisticated random sampling designs to obtain nationally representative samples. Wagenaar (1993) concluded that studies with robust research and analysis designs generally observed an increase in adolescent alcohol consumption following a decrease in MLDA.

In contrast, when many states increased MLDA, teenage alcohol consumption declined. After prohibition ended, each state developed its own policies to regulate the distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol. In addition to the MLDA, examples of other alcohol control policies include excise taxes, restrictions on hours and days of sale, and server training. Many of these other alcohol policies have only recently been evaluated (see Toomey et al., 1994, for a review of the research literature). Of all the alcohol control policies, the MLDA policy has been the most studied. Since the 1970s, at least 70 studies have explicitly examined the effects of increases or decreases in ALRM, with some studies using more robust research designs than others. SHS policies may have been evaluated earlier and more frequently for a variety of reasons, including: (1) a growing concern about drinking and driving among adolescents; (2) the availability of archived time series data on road accidents; (3) the fact that many states first lowered and then increased their MLDAs; and (4) preliminary research showing the significant effects of changes in MLDAs. Extensive literature reviews by Wagenaar (1983, 1993), the United States General Accounting Office (1987) and Moskowitz (1989) provide detailed summaries of many of these studies. MLDA laws were evaluated primarily based on how the MLDA amendment affects teen drinking rates and motor vehicle crashes. The Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) sets the legal age at which a person can purchase alcoholic beverages. The MLDA in the United States is 21 years.

However, prior to the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the legal age at which alcohol could be purchased varied from state to state.1 Science can play a crucial role in developing effective strategies to treat health problems, including those that focus on alcohol-related problems (Gordis, 1991). In an ideal world, public policy development would be based on the identification of a problem and scientific knowledge of the most effective factors in reducing it. In the real world, however, public policy results from economic and political forces that sometimes combine with good science. Legal drinking age laws (MLDA) are an example of how scientific research can support effective public policy. This article shows how science has influenced MLDA policy in the past and summarizes the research that contributes to the ongoing debate about MLDA.