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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Study Examines Public Health Effects of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age

Research Update

Research Date

Alcohol consumption and its harms are common among young people, including those who are below the legal drinking age of 21.  Some people argue that the current age-21 drinking limit in the United States is “not working,” and propose that the drinking age be lowered to 18. Researchers recently conducted economic analyses to estimate the effects of the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) on deaths, injuries, crime, and alcohol consumption, and to identify the costs and benefits of lowering the drinking age to 18.  They report that a large body of evidence shows that setting the MLDA at 21 clearly reduces alcohol consumption and its major harms.  They estimate that lowering the MLDA to 18 would result in an additional 8 deaths per 100,000 person years for the 18–20 age group. Using a common estimate of the value of a statistical life of $8.72 million, this suggests that for every 100,000 young adults allowed to drink legally for a year the cost in terms of increased mortality is about $70 million. The researchers also estimate that lowering the drinking age would impose additional costs on others for crime, health care, and deaths of non-drinking drivers and passengers of at least $12 million annually for every 100,000 newly legal drinkers. These estimates suggest that each extra drink consumed as a result of lowering the MLDA would generate harms valued at more than $15 to the drinker plus at least an additional $2.63 in harms imposed on others, all in addition to the purchase price of the drink. The researchers conclude that “…the evidence strongly suggests that setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 is better from a cost and benefit perspective than setting it at 18 and that any proposal to reduce the drinking age should face a very high burden of proof.”

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