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Directions in Highway Safety, Summer 2009 Cover Page Download Newsletter pdf
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Summer 2009 | Vol. 12 | No. 2

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Research Demonstrates 21 Drinking Law Effective, But Challenges Remain

New research released by the Washington University School of Medicine shows that there have been substantial declines in binge drinking, except among college students, since the national drinking age was set to 21 two decades ago. The information is reported in the July issue of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The researchers say that although many efforts to reduce binge drinking have been successful overall, it still remains a problem on college campuses.

Led by Richard A. Grucza, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, the researchers analyzed data from between 1979 and 2006. The information comes from more than 500,000 subjects, who were divided into groups according to age, sex, ethnicity and student status. The researchers defined binge drinking as having five or more drinks on a given occasion.

The research found that, in males ages 15 to 17, binge-drinking rates have fallen nearly 50 percent between 1979 and 2006. Rates declined more than 20 percent for males aged 18 to 20 and 10 percent in males aged 21 to 23. Also, binge drinking decreased among minority males. Women ages 15 to 20 saw no change in binge drinking between 1979 and 2006. Yet, for women ages 21 to 23, binge drinking rose by almost 40 percent. In 2006, the latest year of available data, more than half of college-age males, and almost 40 percent of college-age females reported binge drinking. This report shows a closing gap between male and female binge drinking.

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One of the biggest surprises of the research was the difference between college students and men and women of the same age who are not enrolled in college. Binge drinking declined in young men, except if they were in college. Binge drinking was up slightly higher in young women not enrolled in college, but it was still significantly lower than in college women.

“The tendency for binge drinking to decline in society has not permeated our college campuses,” says Grucza. Still, Grucza says, it is less likely for high school students to get alcohol with the minimum drinking age at 21.

“Many proponents of lowering the drinking age argue that the higher drinking age has led to more binge drinking,” Grucza says. “There is no evidence to support that. Our study and other studies show that the higher age has decreased the amount of alcohol consumed by young people, the number of binge-drinking episodes overall, the number of fatal car crashes and other adverse alcoholrelated outcomes. There may be good, philosophical arguments about why the drinking age should be lower than 21, but our study demonstrates the higher minimum drinking age has been good for public health.”

The results from this study come after last year’s call from more than 100 college presidents and chancellors to lower the drinking age because they believe that the law makes it more likely for students to binge drink.