Lowering the drinking age

Here is another reader request:

There’s been recent talk about what would happen if the legal drinking age were lowered to 18. Would there be a net increase or decrease in risky binge drinking, accidents, etc?

New Zealand lowered its drinking age to 18 in 1999 and bad consequences followed, including a higher rate of drinking-related car crashes.  Illegality, even when it can be circumvented, really does raise the price of an activity in many instances. 

Nonetheless I still think that 20-year-olds — legal adults in just about every other way — have the right to drink alcohol.  Sometimes I call myself a "two-thirds utilitarian."  I am a pluralist who thinks that utility is often but not always the primary consideration behind policy choice.

There’s always another paternalist intervention to save children’s lives but no one is for all of them.  We could ban swimming pools and buckets for instance.  We could ban high school football.  We could raise the drinking age to 25.  How about a drinking age of 50?  How about a driving age of 21?

I see at least two major analytical questions.  First, how much normative force should "extra death" have in a policy argument?  Second, what is special about the number 18?  Consistent with the latter question, I think that 15-year-olds should be able to drink in a restaurant when clear parental permission is present.


i wonder what the drinking related deaths for europe are, where theres much lower drinking age, controlling for car use.

I think it's reasonable that drunk-driving, etc. would increase after the lowering of the drinking age, if for no other reason then that current law bottles up (and grows) demand.

If a lower drinking age were held long enough for the culture to normalize it (France, for example, doesn't have a binge drinking problem), I think the long run is lower alcohol abuse.

What's exceptionally dumb now is that the drinking age now is set precisely so that the rebellion against it is exactly when young people are out on their own for the first time. Set the drinking age to 16, and have kids learn to drink responsibly when they're still in their parent's house.

Interesting idea from McArdle yesterday, that if you lowered the drinking age and added a zero-tolerance rule for driving, that you might get a better result. Similar to a "nudge", if you will.

It's the large population effect.

With a large enough population, everything results in death.

But the fallacy is that risk is a personal thing, not a population thing. Something does not become more risky to do if lots of people are doing it. It's safe for you if the risk of your own death is low enough. So you can forget about death by tornado!

Always divide by population size to get risk.

Since the problem is one of traffic accidents, which are more likely for drivers under 20 regardless of whether or not alcohol is involved (Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7718080), maybe the answer is to lower the drinking age, and raise the driving age.

I learned to drive in my twenties. Although I never got into an accident, in the first couple of years there were a couple of times that came close. The issue isn't young drivers, it's inexperienced drivers. Raising the driving age wouldn't help.

You could argue instead that there should be a maximum driving age, given all the recent news stories about disoriented elderly drivers plowing through crowds and killing a bunch of people, but of course this is politically impossible.

"if you lowered the drinking age and added a zero-tolerance rule for driving, that you might get a better result. Similar to a "nudge", if you will."

Does she mean zero tolerance for those under 21 or for everybody? If the latter, that would kill off the restaurant and bar industry everywhere but in large metro areas that have public transportation and/or taxi service. Most suburban, small town and rural areas have neither, and are not dense enough to survive on a walk-in crowd.

In the future electronics could lead to much safer cars, if that happens we could lower the drinking age.

Lower the drinking age but increase Pigouvian alcohol taxes substantially.

Taxes on cigarettes have been found to disproportionately discourage young people. That's likely to be true for alcohol taxes as well.

In England they are working toward raising the drinking age to 21, in an effort to curb some of their culture's emphasis on drinking. English drinking culture, especially in the Northeast (where I'm studying) is different from American drinking culture in that habitual drinking (2+ times each week) is expected from teen years until death. Also, drinking until vomiting isn't stigmatized so much here.

How do you know you're spending the evening in Newcastle?
There is a layer of puke on the sidewalk.

Philip Cook's Paying the Tab: Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control has a large section devoted to the economic studies of the effect minimum drinking age laws on traffic fatalities among other things. I think nearly all of the papers found that the drinking age laws were correlated with traffic fatalities. The lower the minimum drinking age, the more traffic fatalities. There's also papers finding that younger drinking ages causes increases in syphilis and gonorrhea (see Harrell Chesson's late 1990s, early 2000s JLE paper on that: "Sex Under the Influence" is the name, I think). And more recently papers have found that higher minimum drinking age laws causes improvements in birth outcomes.

I've not seen anyone reference this pretty large literature when debating this topic. It'd be helpful if advocates of lowering the law would respond to this work. That a lower law would decrease binge drinking at college seems speculative, but even if that's true, it's not clear why that would swamp the plausible damages found in other studies.

"I learned to drive in my twenties. Although I never got into an accident, in the first couple of years there were a couple of times that came close. The issue isn't young drivers, it's inexperienced drivers. Raising the driving age wouldn't help."

I think the issue for, say, a 16 year old driver isn't basic competence so much as an inclination towards risky behavior that is much different for most 22 year olds. I would take a less skilled driver who is careful than a "natural" driver who takes unnecessary risks any day. Combine the risky behavior of a 16 year old with alcohol use and you get a recipe for disaster. I frankly think the best policy might be to lower the drinking age to 15 and raise the driving age to 21, but that will never happen in this country with the present state of its public transportation system.

In response to Dave:
Lowering the drinking age to 16 would make it incredibly easy for not only high school students but middle school students as well to get alcohol. I agree that under parental supervision, someone as young as 16 should be allowed to drink, but the distribution of alcohol to people of middle school age should be parents' responsibility, not 16 year olds'.

Oh, and my dad started serving me alcohol at dinner at home when I was 15. I think this later resulted in me drinking less while with friends because my age peers served crap at their parties and my tastes were already accustomed to better stuff than any of us could afford on teenager and college student budgets. Plus there was no "OMG WE HAVE BOOZE! COOL!!!" appeal because I drank with my parents and anything you do with your parents is automatically tainted with uncoolness. :)

"New Zealand lowered its drinking age to 18 in 1999 and bad consequences followed,"

Forgive me Tyler, but I very much doubt that I'd get away with submitting a paper in your class with a link to a Google search as my key source. If we're going to have this debate on a utilitarian basis (will bad consequences follow?) rather than a normative one (should legal adults be allowed to drink?) then actual, you know, data is required.

My approach is the normative one. Adults are able to do all sorts of things that may harm themselves or others and should be held accountable if they do. I see no principle that makes drinking a special case.

Anecdotally, my experience growing up in Australia tells me the problem can be managed without the nuclear option of prohibition. Firstly there is a zero blood alcohol limit for drivers under 21 (I think it also applies to older drivers if they've held a licence for less than 2 years). Secondly, Police can randomly stop and breathalyse drivers, a fact that is widely and constantly advertised. The overwhelming majority of young adults exhibit responsible behaviour in terms of drinking and driving (mostly by avoiding the driving part!).

Another factor is that most kids live at home while attending University. It's one thing for a 19 year old to stagger back to their dorm room at 2 am smashed and quite another to face your parents in that state!

Dan - there's a mountain of empirical evidence supporting the causal relationship between drinking age laws and traffic/highway fatalities. See Philip Cook's book (linked to above). This also is a good start.

I would expect and initial increase in drinking accidents etc. then reversion to the mean, maybe a slight reduction.

The primary effect of drinking laws in this country, given that such a high proportion of 18-21 year olds are in college, was to drive drinking (no pun intended) out of the dorms and near-campus bars and into the off-campus apartments, many of which require a drive to get to.

In other words, slightly less drinking, probably, but a lot more drunk-driving, definitely.

You can tell a lot about MADD's real goals by the fact that they ignore this.

In France they water the wine of even young kids at table. Alcohol in moderation is harmless and even ... good for you.

Alcohol like sex in America is a cause of much hypocritical moralizing. Americans need to become more relaxed about a great many things. The tendency to draw lines, build walls, issue ultimatums and reach for guns isn't exactly "civilized." They need to lower their temperature and have fewer heart attacks.

My old man used to toss me a beer when I was 12, over-and-above the booze I nicked when he was elsewhere ... hasn't hurt me at all. Never participated in an AA meeting and don't intend to.

I can say from personal experience that it is much more dangerous to work rotating shifts and drive than to drink and drive. You might not get your 24/7 services like electricity though if you tried to ban driving after the midnight shift.

One problem I have with underage drinking laws is the power that they give to local police...where the "high status" kids get let off with a warning and poor or minority kids get arrested. This was common in my youth, and I assume that police have not changed.

First of all:
"How about for people age 16-21 the DMV issue "Driving Licenses" and "Drinking Licenses" and let the teens choose (you can only pick one)?

Posted by: zacharij at Aug 28, 2008 10:02:27 AM"

YEAH!!!!! I had this idea too - it seems so obvious, why didn't every comment include this idea?
I'd make the interval 18-21 though, and make the drinking license valid only at bars, not stores. So they don't buy alcohol for their same age peers to enjoy at home.

This conversation suffers from an oversight that makes me wonder if any of you have ever known an alcoholic or addict.
I am glad we try our damnedest to prevent young people from having access to alcohol. When we are young, we experience our first bouts of emotional torment - humiliation, rejection, disappointment. People that have the opportunity to grind through them without the aid of alcohol will know that emotional suffering can be borne. People that start drinking young have No Experience dealing with adult problems sober. They have no memories of surviving emotional torment to draw on while they are trying to recover. People that start drinking at 25 can become alcoholics too, of course, but at least if they try to quit, they will have experience to draw on. They can say - I have felt pain before, I lived through it then, I can live through it now.

I read all the time that people who start drinking young are more likely to turn into alcoholics later in life than people who wait.

Perhaps a buddy system would work better similar to beginning drivers. Allow them to drink but not to buy. They would have to have a 21 year old provide it and be somewhat responsible for it.

I am of the strong belief that parents should be able to allow their children to drink with them at any age. Having wine with Sunday lunch, or a beer with your dad after a day's yardwork is entirely different from getting pissed with your mates. Maybe require 21 to be able to buy alcohol from a store, but any age can drink with parents in restaurants or at home, and 18 can drink in a bar.

That New Zealand study just looked at the increases in DUI car crashes among 18-19 year-olds. Was there a decrease in DUI car crashes among older people, e.g. in their young 20s? I'd guess maybe - drinking (and probably driving drunk) loses its appeal as you grow further from the age it becomes legal.


"The drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 1999...The study found that the rate of traffic crashes and injuries increased 12% for 18-19 year old males and 14% among 15-17 year old males comparing the four years before and after the New Zealand legislature lowered the drinking age to 18. For females, rates rose 51% for 18-19 year olds and 24% for 15-17 year olds."


2004 US driving fatalities per 100,000 population: 14.5, NZ: 10.7

So evidently, despite lowering the drinking age, New Zealand still has a lower driver fatality rate per capita than the US.

However, take that with a grain of salt because:

The US has fewer road fatalities per billion kilometers driven in 2003 than New Zealand, but only about 20% less. The US also has fewer road fatalities per distance driven than Germany, France, Japan, Belgium, and South Korea. The UK and Canada does have fewer road fatalities per distance than the US though.

And if you look at the graph at that link about road fatalities per capita over time, you can see that there is long-term trend of decreasing road fatalities per capita for New Zealand, and at least in 2003 it was below what it was in 1998 (about 50% less!). Infact there is a long-term trend of decreasing road fatalities in almost all countries, with the notable exception of Greece and Italy, and since 1992 the US.

But don't worry, from 1980-2003, US road fatalities per mile dropped nearly 50%.

As a "child of the MADD era", I remember one year (probably 1985) when nobody cared about letting people get drunk at a party and drive home, and the next year after significant anti-drunk-driving indoctrination when we would actually physically stop people from driving home drunk from a party. The same number of underage drinkers were at the parties I was going to, the exception was that a few people became "designated drivers". This occurred several years after the DC drinking age rose from 18 to 21.

So whenever people talk about raising the drinking age reducing car accidents, I wonder how much was due to the law, and how much was due to the graphic indoctrination by MADD/SADD/etc. of crashed cars, bloody bodies, etc. paraded on our high school theater stages.

As a data point, I checked drunk driving crashes at work today. When my state lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18, the number of drinking drivers ages 18-20 involved in crashes more than doubled in one year, and just about tripled before the 21 age was restored. Injury crashes dominated that, with fatal crashes rising by a lower amount.

After changing the law back, those crashes fell by about 1/4 in one year. The next big drop was around 1983/1984, when MADD started up.

If you are going to make the case, you need to take Tyler's position that rights/freedom trump consequentialism. The question is not whether but by how much deaths will increase and what we are willing to accept.

A few casual observations as a college student:

1) The present laws for buying alcohol are a total joke, and whether it is a fake ID or simply knowing someone older, it's never hard to get alcohol.

2) Most underage college students do their drinking at a party or similar environment. After they get loaded up, they usually drive home to fall asleep rather than stick it out at the party. Lowering the drinking age may increase drunk driving, but it might also have the effect of encouraging teens to designate a driver to the bar or catch a cab instead.

3) DUI laws/enforcement is completely useless. There are plenty of people who simply don't realized how much they've had or are at the threshold who get in serious trouble. A DUI in college, is basically the end of someone's career before it has started. Worst yet, most students don't realize how serious the charge is until it is too late. Zero-tolerance DUI laws are the worst possible way to handle the issue of drunk driving.

4) Using Pigouvian taxes to increase the price of alcohol may help to curb underage drinking, but in my experience, most students will simply buy a cheaper form of alcohol. Even in states where alcohol taxes are very high, most students will simply burn up more of their disposable income or substitute cheap beer for even cheaper beer.

Drinking age in Germany and Switzerland is 16 for wine and beer, 18 for hard liquor and alcopops. Yes, the kids drink. But to be honest, they make very little trouble. And beer is very cheap here.

It's not the drinking age, it's the drinking culture. British (and Scandinavian) society, along with former British colonies, have a really distorted attitude to drinking. Raising the drinking age to 21 or 25 or whatever just makes it more exciting by the fact of prohibition.

Drunk Driving isn't particularly dangerous. It used to be a personal moral failing, rather than a public problem.

See Joseph R. Gusfield ``The Culture of Public Problems : Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order.''

MADD corresponded more or less to the rise of soap opera in public debate.

The political discovery was the power in inventing a public problem and taking ownership of it.

If a person reaches Adulthood at 18, it is morally unacceptable to ban him from drinkink. All adults are equal. The fact that they might be fewer deaths is simply not enough to warrant this kind of discrimination between adults.

"What about sexual age of consent?"
Obviously, 18 is way too high.

That's not at all obvious. It is a fact that lots of teenagers have sex. It does not automatically follow that teenagers having sex should be legal. It is a fact that lots of teenagers smoke marijuana. It does not automatically follow that teenagers smoking marijuana should be legal. One can make a case for both, but it's not at all "obvious".

Age of consent should be set at the moment when people fully enter puberty, at around 14. AOC is fourteen in Austria and Chile, 13 in Spain and 15 in France.

People enter into puberty at different ages. There are 9 year-old girls with breasts and periods - should it be legal for them to have sex, just because they are now capable of conceiving a child?

Sex has consequences. Back in the day, AOC laws weren't really necessary. If a girl got pregnant, her father would speak to his father, and there would be a wedding (and the girl always got pregnant sooner or later). If you don't want to be married to him/her, you have a good incentive not to have sex.

Today, contraception largely works, abortion is available if it doesn't, and being an unwed mother doesn't have so much stigma attached to it. Sex now seems consequence-free - a fun activity for kids to while away the afternoon, so why not? Then along come the consequences - either the physical ones (STDs, pregnancy, because you didn't use contraception properly) or the emotional ones (maybe screwing someone has more emotional content than playing table-tennis with them). It is far from "obvious" that the average 14-year-old is equipped to deal with these issues. We don't let 14-year-olds sign contracts either.

Of course there would be an increase in drinking-related morbidity and mortality. Lowering the drinking age would, literally overnight, increase the number of people drinking alcohol. Of these, some fraction would proceed to make abysmal decisions in the vicinity of large, dense objects like Ford F150s and bridge abutments. Like any other form of epidemiology, the incidence here goes up when the susceptible population is increased.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not exactly. Our society is extremely reflexive, which is sometimes adaptive, and sometimes not. After 9/11, this trait was probably a bad thing, as we responded for the sake of responding. If we were to lower the drinking age extemporaneously, the short-term result would inevitably be "more death". But if it was done as part of a gradual shift in paradigm, concurrent with parents teaching their kids how to drink, I think the area under the curve, a decade or two out, would be significantly less. But like I said, due to our collective recoil, that sort of program would probably not weather the storm.

"People enter into puberty at different ages. There are 9 year-old girls with breasts and periods - should it be legal for them to have sex, just because they are now capable of conceiving a child?"
The law in fact protects late developers: it should be fixed at 14 because at that age al mosr EVERYONE has reached sexual maturity. Also, at that age people have enough emotional, cognitive and intelectual maturity to handle sex. Nature made people fully sexualy mature at 14, so you can not moraly argue that they can't have sex.

It is far from "obvious" that the average 14-year-old is equipped to deal with these issues. We don't let 14-year-olds sign contracts either."
This argument is popular, but rather stupid. I don't really see the similarity between consenting to sex and consenting to a contract.
First of all, civil law and xriminal law are tw COMPLETELY DIFFERENT thing. If a minor signs a contract, the contract will be declared void. But nobody goes to jail. Having sex is a normal natural part of life, and can't be undone like a contract. So you can only criminalize sex when consent was not given. Person below a certain age can't consent because they are children. But obviously sexualy mature people can consent on sex, and therefore the consent is valid on principle. Also, people are criminaly responsible at around 14, because they can distinguish between good and evil, and they can also consent to sex. Declaring void a contract with a person under 18 is really a benefit for the minor which doesn't have a parallel in criminal law. Jailing a person and declaring a contract void have nothingb to do.

I believe that the drinking age should remain 21. However i also believe that if a person is under the age of 21 and is in the military that the person should be allowed a drink. I do not think it is right that a person can fight and die for their country but be denied an alcoholic beverage. I believe that if the drinking age was lowered to 18 that there would be a significantly higher amount of alcohol related car crashes(as in the case of New Zealand). Even though age really doesnt stop a person from drinking I think that the drinking age should remain 21.

The minimum drinking age continues to stir controversy, with recent proposals being made to reduce or qualify the minimum legal age at which drinking may occur. One of the more influential proponents of lowering the drinking age is Dr. Ruth Engs, Professor of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington.

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