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Increased Binge Drinking Linked to Lower Legal Drinking Age, Study Finds

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

April 9, 2019

A new study from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine found that adults who grew up in states where it was legal to drink before the age of 21 were more likely to be binge drinkers later in their life.

“It wasn’t just that lower minimum drinking ages had a negative impact on people when they were young,” said study author Andrew Plunk, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“Even decades later, the ability to legally purchase alcohol before age 21 was associated with more frequent binge drinking,” Plunk further commented.

In arriving at this conclusion, the researchers studied 39,000 people who started drinking in the 1970’s (when some states had the legal drinking age as low as 18) and examined their behavior of long-term drinking.

What they found was that people who came from states with lower drinking ages were more likely to drink heavily when they did drink, compared to those states where the legal age to drink was 21.

In particular, men who grew up in the low drinking age states, had a 19 percent increased likelihood to binge drink in excess of once per month. What’s more, among males who didn’t attend college, there was a 31 percent higher likelihood to participate in binge drinking more than one time per month.

However, it’s interesting to note that the individuals with states with the lower drinking age were no more likely to drink more frequently or consume more alcohol overall.

For purposes of this study, binge drinking referred to four or more drinks per drinking session for women and five or more drinks per drinking session for a man.

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Binge drinking defined by the NIAAA

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), binge drinking is defined as drinking an amount of alcohol within two hours that causes your blood alcohol concentration level (or BAC) to reach 0.08g/dL. For men, this typically occurs after five drinks, and for women, after about four drinks.

What makes an individual less likely to develop an alcohol use disorder according to the NIAAA

The NIAAA suggests the following guidelines to be low risk or moderate drinking and make the individual less likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. To fall under this low risk or moderate category according to the NIAAA, women should consume no more than seven drinks a week or three drinks on any one single day. Men should consume no more than 14 drinks per week and no more than four drinks on any one single day.

Even if you stay within these limits, you can have alcohol-related health consequences if you drink alcohol too quickly. That’s why the NIAAA recommends drinking slowly if you do drink and eat while you are drinking.

Non-college educated men are at a higher risk for binge drinking

The study authors found the effect of the minimum legal drinking age was greatest with non-college educated men.

“Binge drinking on college campuses is a very serious problem,” Plunk says. “But it’s also important not to completely forget about young people who aren’t on college campuses. In our study, they had the greatest risk of suffering the long-term consequences linked to lower drinking ages.”

The study authors suggest that their findings should be a warning to policymakers who are considering lowering the minimum legal drinking age to not focus simply on college students when evaluating proposals.

The Washington University School of Medicine study is published online in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

If you or a loved one is a binge drinker and want alcohol counseling, contact us today. 

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