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Legal Drinking Age Of 21 Saves Lives, Even Though It's Flouted

Students drink outside the Rose Bowl during the NCAA BCS national championship game in January.
Gregory Bull
Students drink outside the Rose Bowl during the NCAA BCS national championship game in January.

Eighty percent of college students say they drink, despite laws making it illegal for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol. Critics of that drinking age say that lowering it would reduce binge drinking and alcohol-related deaths.

But that might be wishful thinking, a study says. Researchers from Boston University reviewed scientific literature published since 2006 and concluded keeping the legal drinking age at 21 reduces rates of drunk driving and crashes, and reduces rates of underage drinking.

The paper, published Monday in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, even goes so far as to say "case closed" — the minimum drinking age saves lives.

"If we choose to decrease the legal drinking age, there will be consequences," says William DeJong, the study's lead author and a professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.

People may find it difficult to justify a law that is mostly ignored, DeJong tells Shots, but "The weight of the evidence suggests that even though t the law is widely disobeyed, it does have a protective effect."

The review also looked at drinking habits in other countries, paying special attention to New Zealand, which lowered its drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999. Several studies found a spike in alcohol-related car crashes and increased drinking there among still-underage 16- and 17-year -olds.

The conclusion of this latest study isn't too surprising, according to Dr. Donald Vereen, director of the University of Michigan's Substance Abuse Research Center. "Magic bullets do not work for any problem or issue involving human beings," he tells Shots. And lowering the drinking age isn't going to stop underage drinking, he says.

The national minimum drinking age was established in 1984, when Congress passed a law penalizing states that allowed anyone younger than 21 to buy alcohol. Several studies included in this review compared binge drinking and drunk driving accidents before and after states increased the drinking age in the 1980s.

In 2004, a group of over 100 college presidents and chancellors formed an initiative to have the minimum drinking age reduced, saying that if undergraduates could legally drink, colleges would be able to better oversee their drinking and help them rein in the habit.

Many advocates of lowering the drinking age point to the European model of legal drinking at age 18 or below. But Vereen says the comparison is misguided. "In Germany, beer is just a part of the meal," he says. "It's not in the American culture to do that." The Boston University review also points to research that European teens aren't immune to the appeal of binge drinking.

"These kids are not interested in single malt scotches," Vereen adds. Teaching kids how to drink responsibly is a big process, he says, and should start at a young age. But lowering the drinking age won't do much to help.

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Maanvi Singh
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