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Is raising the drinking age good policy? Wayne Hall looks at the evidence

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.”

Comments 5

  1. Captain Col says:

    Good to see some actual comparison of effects of the adjustment of ages in USA. But this still doesn’t make any argument for increasing the drinking age. Road deaths alone are not the criteria. We accept road deaths now, as much as we complain and express disgust. We could spend money to make roads safer (divided highways, remove black spots, improved surfaces and visibility etc) but we don’t because we’ve made a decision that a certain number are acceptable and the price for a lower road toll is unpalatable.

    The answer as always is to treat adults as adults unless they don’t act as adults. Those that don’t act properly don’t drive. By all means look at other legislative means to ease young drivers into full responsibility, but beware of punishing the law abiding to catch the baddies.

  2. spiderspag says:

    If the consumption of alcohol is such a problem, why is there so much less alcohol fueled death and violence in western Europe, where they may start drinking at a much earlier age than Australia? Our government have never met a victimless crime they didn’t like, but such blatant discrimination against the young, who are expected to vote, serve in the military, and may be sent to adult prison facilities, yet are continually have their rights stripped away like this, is downright unacceptable.

  3. iSynic says:

    It was a good comparison. Of course, social differences in how alcohol are viewed and driving education between countries vary largely. But there isn’t really any other good indicator of how it might affect your own country.

    I would like to say one thing, specifically regarding the risk of cannabis use increasing.

    From a harm-reduction standpoint, Cannabis (marijuana) use causes far less damage both to health and society in comparison to alcohol or tobacco. It’s less addictive, doesn’t cause aggression, doesn’t cause lung cancer or liver failure, doesn’t kill users. I’m not saying it has no consequences or that it can’t be abused. But the capacity for abuse and the subsequent consequences are generally on a much smaller scale than alcohol.

  4. Jon Hunt says:

    I have to say that intuitively it would be a good idea to raise the drinking age, so I am pleased that Prof Hall has given some evidence for this. Intuitively I doubt that an early adult/late adolescent mind in combination with inexperience and alcohol could possibly be a good thing. It also agrees with some evidence that I have seen for alcohol related problems in Aboriginal communities; that the most effective intervention is limiting supply.

  5. Zoe says:

    My view, that raising the legal drinking age is to ultimately prevent the onset of young people whose lives become dominated by alcohol and become ruined as a result of alcohol. By increasing the age to 21 it has many positive aspects such as the decrease in alcohol traffic fatalities and other alcohol related injuries. It also prevents the brain damage that is associated with alcohol consumption at a young age. As the brain has not finished developing until mid 20s, the effect that alcohol has on the brain can be serious long term or short term damage. In some cases it can be irreversible, and in other cases it can impair memory and learning abilities. Therefore, the road accidents that are caused by youth and alcohol are not the only aspect to look at when considering raising the legal drinking age.
    Alcohol among young people is a serious and very common issue and needs to be addressed through other ways and not just through the alco-pop tax but other policies.

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social policy
Summer reading 2020-2021
Tasmanian election 2021
Testing Croakey News category 1
The Croakey Archives
#cripcroakey
#HealthEquity16
#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP
#AusCanIndigenousWellness
#cphce2016
#CPHCEforum16
#CRANAplus2016
#IAMRA2016
#LowitjaConf2016
#PreventObesity16
#TowardsRecovery
#VMIAC16
#WearablesCEH
#WICC2016
2017 conferences
#17APCC
#ACEM17
#AIDAconf2017
#BTH20
#CATSINaM17
#ClimateHealthStrategy
#IAHAConf17
#IDS17
#LBQWHC17
#LivingOurWay
#OKtoAskAu
#OTCC2017
#ResearchTranslation17