Following on from the previous post, Wayne Hall, Professor of Public Health Policy at the University of Queensland, examines what history and research suggest might be the impact of raising the drinking age. He writes:
“Alex Wodak opposes the proposal to raise the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in Australia to 21 because it will not reduce road deaths, it may have other counterproductive social effects (such as increasing cannabis use), and it will in any case be less effective that raising alcohol taxes.
He understates the strength of the evidence on the impact of raising the MLDA on road crash deaths in the US during the 1980s. The US experience with changing the MLDA during the early 1980s provides some of the strongest observational evidence for the effectiveness of this partial form of prohibition.
The MLDA in the USA was lowered to 18 in the early 1970s after 18 became the Federal voting age. Evaluations showed that road crash deaths increased in young adults in those states that lowered the MLDA. The MLDA was subsequently changed back to 21 years in most US states and a national uniform MLDA of 21 years was set in 1984.
A meta-analysis of the state-based studies showed that, on average, reducing the MLDA to 18 was followed by a 10% increase in fatalities while increasing it to 21 was followed by an average 12% decrease in fatalities.
These findings were supported by an econometric analysis of alcohol-related road deaths in young adults over a 15 year period that assessed the effects of MLDA while controlling for confounding factors including other policies designed to reduce road deaths.
Increasing the MLDA to age 21 produced a 19% reduction in the odds of alcohol-related road death after controlling for all these other variables and policy changes. Its effect on road crash deaths was comparable to those of zero tolerance for drivers under 21 (a 24% reduction); defining a BAC of 0.10% as drunk driving (an 18% reduction) and making it compulsory to use seat belts (a 21% reduction).
Alex Wodak overstates the evidence that raising the MLDA increased cannabis use in the USA. I am aware of only one study reporting such an association. Its findings are at odds with consistent national survey data that rates of cannabis use fell among young adults in the USA from 1979 until the early 1990s.
He is on stronger ground in doubting that raising the MLDA in Australia to 21 would produce the same benefits as in the USA in the 1980s. The MLDA in Australia has been 18 for over 30 years in Queensland, and for a century in NSW and Victoria.
A return to a MLDA of 21 would therefore be a much larger change in Australia than was the case in the USA in the mid 1980s. Young adults who can vote at 18 would almost certainly oppose any law that would deprive them of their “right to drink”.
Even if state politicians were brave enough to raise the MLDA, compliance would probably be poorer than it was in the USA in the late 1980s. And of course the alcohol industry would vigorously oppose any policy directed at reducing the consumption of its best customers, young adults between 18 and 21.
Raising alcohol taxes would be a more cost effective policy than raising the MLDA. But this does not preclude other policies that may reduce the around 100 alcohol-related road deaths among young Australians each year.
The Federal government could, for example, encourage all states to extend laws that require newly licensed drivers to maintain a BAC of zero until the age of 22, as is the case in Victoria. This simple and inexpensive policy would allow young Australians to drink or drive; it would prohibit them from combining these activities for the first three to five years of driving when their drinking poses the greatest risk to themselves and other road users.
The alcohol industry will oppose any changes to the MLDA, as, until the passing of the alcopops tax, they have prevented any increase in alcohol taxes for the past 20 years.
Now they can cite Alex Wodak in support of their claim that any policy that reduces access to alcohol or increases its price will increase illicit drug use by young people.”