The persistent effects of minimum legal drinking age laws on drinking patterns later in life

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013 Mar;37(3):463-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2012.01945.x. Epub 2013 Jan 24.


Background: Exposure to permissive minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws not only affects young adults in the short term, but also later in life; for example, individuals who could legally purchase alcohol before the age of 21 are more likely to suffer from drinking problems as older adults, long after the laws had been changed. However, it is not known how permissive MLDA exposure affects specific drinking behavior. This present study uses changes in MLDA laws during the 1970s and 1980s as a natural experiment to investigate the potential impact of permissive MLDA exposure on average alcohol consumption, frequency of drinking, and patterns of binging and more moderate, nonheavy drinking.

Methods: Policy exposure data were paired with alcohol use data from the 1991 to 1992 National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey and the 2001 to 2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Past-year drinkers born between 1949 and 1972 (n = 24,088) were included. Average daily intake, overall drinking frequency, and frequency of both binge episodes (5+ drinks) and days without a binge episode (nonheavy drinking) for the previous year at the time of interview were tracked for each respondent.

Results: Exposure to permissive MLDAs was associated with higher odds to report frequent binging and lower odds to report any moderate drinking; these associations were largely driven by men and those who did not attend college. Overall drinking frequency and average alcohol consumption were not affected by MLDA exposure.

Conclusions: The ability to legally purchase alcohol before the age of 21 does not seem to increase overall drinking frequency, but our findings suggest that it is associated with certain types of problematic drinking behaviors that persist into later adulthood: more frequent binge episodes and less frequent nonheavy drinking. We also propose that policymakers and critics should not focus on college drinking when evaluating the effectiveness of MLDAs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Alcohol Drinking / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Alcohol Drinking / trends
  • Automobile Driving / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Female
  • Health Surveys* / trends
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Young Adult