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Study: Under-21 Drinking Leads to Lasting Harms, Especially in Women

Under 21

By Molly Black for The Fresh Story, published by FACE and reprinted here with with permission.

A new study shows that drinking before age 21 has lasting, harmful effects, especially in women. The study examined data for people who turned 18 before the nationwide 21-law went into effect in 1984. The study provides fresh evidence to support the much-debated 21-law and further demonstrates that the law saves lives.

The research was conducted by Richard Grucza, an epidemiologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, and results will be published in the February 2012 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Grucza and his team analyzed data from the 1990-2004 U.S. Multiple Cause of Death Files and the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, comparing rates of drug and alcohol problems, drunk driving accidents, homicides and suicides. They found significantly higher rates of alcohol and drug problems in adults who turned 18 between the years of 1967 and 1989, when the legal drinking age was lowered in many states.

In a press release about the research, Grucza explained, “After prohibition, most states had a drinking age of 21. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as voting rights were extended to people as young as 18, and people of that age were being drafted to serve in Vietnam, a lot of states lowered their drinking ages. But by the late 1970s, we saw spikes in DUI-related deaths among young people and states began to revert to a drinking age of 21. The 1984 federal act was really just a completion of change that was already underway.”

Grucza said the study showed that elevated risks for suicide and homicide in adulthood were especially prevalent in women, but that alcohol contributes to these harms in different ways. “Suicide and homicide are very different,” he said. Grucza went on to explain that higher homicide rates among these women may be attributed to the link between drinking and domestic violence. For suicide, alcohol problems may tip the balance for women by contributing to a higher number of attempts than men.

In conclusion, Grucza said that his research supports the argument for keeping the 21-law in place. “The 21 minimum legal drinking age was initially adopted to reduce the number of DUI-related accidents and other social consequences of drinking involving young people,” he said. “The finding that it may also save lives and reduce problems during adulthood shows the importance of maintaining these laws, and developing other interventions aimed toward reducing drinking among young people.”

Visit our website for more information on the 21-law issue.

“Higher minimum legal drinking ages linked to lower rates of suicides and homicides later in life,” eurekalert.org, November 8, 2011.
“Study: Under-21 drinking has lasting harms for women,” abcnews.com, November 15, 2011.
“Study: Another reason to keep the drinking age at 21,” healthland.time.com, November 16, 2011.