Drinking Age

Yesterday, over a hundred college presidents called for a reexamination of the current minimum drinking age and suggested it should be lowered. This is great news and could serve as an opportunity to begin an intelligent national dialogue on improving alcohol policies.

Unfortunately, the neoprohibitionists at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and elsewhere have already sprung into action in an attempt to squelch any reform-minded opinions. MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney said in a press release that any discussion of the minimum drinking age “must honor the science behind the 21 law which unequivocally shows that the 21 law has reduced drunk driving and underage and binge drinking.”

Of course, MADD’s preferred “science” ignores a very interesting working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shreds the oft-cited correlation between adoption of the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA), which forced all states to have a minimum drinking age of 21, and a reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

How could this study’s findings differ so greatly from the research that MADD touts?

The paper, penned by Jeffery A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum, points out that prior research consistently errs by including states that were unaffected by the law – the 12 states that had adopted a minimum drinking age of 21 long before FUDAA was passed and forced states to do so. Those states – for reasons unrelated to the federal law – experienced a dramatic decrease in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the 80s and their inclusion in previous studies led many researchers to falsely conclude that the FUDAA was the key factor in the national trend.

That trend, however, began well before the FUDAA was passed in 1984. As the study notes: “[T]he decline began in the year 1969, the year in which several landmark improvements were made in the accident avoidance and crash protection features of passenger cars.” The study also recognizes that medical advances probably deserve a great deal of credit for the reduction.

While drunk driving statistics tend to attract the most attention in discussions of the minimum drinking age, the core purpose of such laws is to prevent minors from accessing alcohol. To this end, these laws have been an abject failure on college campuses. Even high school students seem to have little problem obtaining alcohol. A survey by the University of Michigan reveals that 8th and 10th graders find it easier to get alcohol than cigarettes.

Still, anti-drinking advocates cling to the notion that the minimum drinking age is effective and that state governments are unable to make sound decisions for their residents.