Raising the drinking age: Not a lifesaver

Just saw this article courtesy of Greg Mankiw. In the article the authors talk about the impact of rising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the US. There were two parts – a voluntary lift in some states, and later on a legislated increase for the whole country.

The key bit for me is this (highlighting by me):

The results are striking. Virtually all the life-saving impact of the MLDA21 comes from the few early-adopting states, not from the larger number that resulted from federal pressure. Further, any life-saving effect in those states that first raised the drinking age was only temporary, occurring largely in the first year or two after switching to the MLDA21.

So this isn’t saying that lifting the drinking age is necessarily a bad idea – but that it isn’t necessarily going to save lives either. In the end only the states which did it voluntarily (where it was more of a community effort) had any impact – and even that was only temporary.

They go on to say:

This makes sense if a higher MLDA works only when state governments can set a drinking age that responds to local attitudes and concerns–and when states are energized to enforce such laws. A policy imposed from on high, especially one that is readily evaded and opposed by a large fraction of the citizenry, is virtually guaranteed to fail.

The major implication of these results is that the drinking age does not produce its main claimed benefit. Moreover, it plausibly generates side effects, like binge drinking and disrespect for the law–the very behavior that events planned for this month’s alcohol awareness theme are designed to deter.

I don’t disagree with this set of conclusions at all.

I would think long and hard about rising the drinking age in NZ from 18 – and then I wouldn’t do it 😉

UpdatePaul Walker also discusses the article here.

8 replies
  1. Alex Tarrant
    Alex Tarrant says:

    I wouldn’t raise it either.

    One point from Scandinavian friends is that raising the age/having a higher age leads to more home made liquor, which if made wrong can be deadly (or rather horrible from personal experiences). I think in Sweden, you can drink (very low % drinks) at 18, but can’t buy spirits etc until you are 20.

    The big thing in NZ with the drinking age is the drink-driving argument, and that by raising the drinking-age, this would mean less alcohol related incidents. However there is the argument about that in these cases, the last drink was consumed at home.

    People are all too worried about achieving a result in the short term (ie. statistics that a govt minister can use in the re-election campaign). What I think is needed is more education on the subject – not just to kids at schools, but to parents as well. It’s also not very helpful that we are surrounded by alcohol advertising everywhere we go.

    Right, off to buy a couple of bottles of wine. it’s a hard life being a cultured person (I never got the binge drinking ‘culture’ tag, “I’m a cultured person, does that mean I should binge drink?”- esp when we had a minister of arts and culture.)


  2. Paul Walker
    Paul Walker says:

    Discussed the same article here. What got me was that the results differed depending on whether the drinking age was changed for local reasons or via pressure from the federal government. Can’t say I would change the drinking age either.

  3. Matt S
    Matt S says:

    The thing that gets me is the difference between attitudes to drinking in places like France and Italy, where it is not uncommon for children as young as 12 to drink a glass of wine with dinner, to New Zealand where we repress it in such a way.

    I have a friend who recently moved to Italy and it took him some time to get used to the fact that if he was drinking with friends, often he’d drink a bottle of wine himself while his 3 friends had shared a bottle. My friend is by no means a heavy drinker by NZ standards, but seems to be the definition of a binge drinker in those Western European countries.

    By not elevating alcohol to a social taboo, these countries have largely avoided the related social and health issues that such a status causes.

  4. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    @Matt S

    “By not elevating alcohol to a social taboo, these countries have largely avoided the related social and health issues that such a status causes.”

    That is very true – they have changed the structure of the costs and benefits associated with alcohol consumption. I think its something we should look long and hard at.

  5. andy aunese
    andy aunese says:

    they shouldnt raise the drinking age mahn … but if
    dey do im goin on strike

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