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The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health

  • Christopher Carpenter
  • Carlos Dobkin

The Amethyst Initiative, signed by more than 100 college presidents and other higher education officials calls for a reexamination of the minimum legal drinking age in the United States. A central argument of the initiative is that the U.S. minimum legal drinking age policy results in more dangerous drinking than would occur if the legal drinking age were lower. A companion organization called Choose Responsibility explicitly proposes "a series of changes that will allow 18-20 year-olds to purchase, possess and consume alcoholic beverages." Does the age-21 drinking limit in the United States reduce alcohol consumption by young adults and its harms, or as the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative contend, is it "not working"? In this paper, we summarize a large and compelling body of empirical evidence which shows that one of the central claims of the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative is incorrect: setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 clearly reduces alcohol consumption and its major harms. We use a panel fixed effects approach and a regression discontinuity approach to estimate the effects of the minimum legal drinking age on mortality, and we also discuss what is known about the relationship between the minimum legal drinking age and other adverse outcomes such as nonfatal injury and crime. We document the effect of the minimum legal drinking age on alcohol consumption and estimate the costs of adverse alcohol-related events on a per-drink basis. Finally we consider implications for the correct choice of a minimum legal drinking age.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.25.2.133
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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 25 (2011)
Issue (Month): 2 (Spring)
Pages: 133-56

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:25:y:2011:i:2:p:133-56
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.25.2.133
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  1. Orley Ashenfelter & Michael Greenstone, 2004. "Using Mandated Speed Limits to Measure the Value of a Statistical Life," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(S1), pages S226-S267, February.
  2. Dee, Thomas S., 1999. "State alcohol policies, teen drinking and traffic fatalities," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 72(2), pages 289-315, May.
  3. Carpenter, Christopher, 2005. "Youth alcohol use and risky sexual behavior: evidence from underage drunk driving laws," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 24(3), pages 613-628, May.
  4. Viscusi, W Kip & Aldy, Joseph E, 2003. " The Value of a Statistical Life: A Critical Review of Market Estimates throughout the World," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 27(1), pages 5-76, August.
  5. Joksch, Hans C. & Jones, Ralph K., 1993. "Changes in the drinking age and crime," Journal of Criminal Justice, Elsevier, vol. 21(3), pages 209-221.
  6. Christopher Carpenter & Carlos Dobkin, 2007. "The Effect of Alcohol Consumption on Mortality: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from the Minimum Drinking Age," NBER Working Papers 13374, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. Kenkel, Donald S, 1993. "Drinking, Driving, and Deterrence: The Effectiveness and Social Costs of Alternative Policies," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 36(2), pages 877-913, October.
  8. Tara Watson & Angela Fertig, 2008. "Minimum Drinking Age Laws and Infant Health Outcomes," NBER Working Papers 14118, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. Phelps, Charles E., 1988. "Death and taxes : An opportunity for substitution," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 7(1), pages 1-24, March.
  10. Lovenheim, Michael F. & Slemrod, Joel, 2010. "The fatal toll of driving to drink: The effect of minimum legal drinking age evasion on traffic fatalities," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 29(1), pages 62-77, January.
  11. repec:reg:rpubli:282 is not listed on IDEAS
  12. Ruhm, Christopher J., 1996. "Alcohol policies and highway vehicle fatalities," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 15(4), pages 435-454, August.
  13. Carpenter, Christopher, 2004. "How do Zero Tolerance Drunk Driving Laws work?," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(1), pages 61-83, January.
  14. Marianne Bertrand & Esther Duflo & Sendhil Mullainathan, 2002. "How Much Should We Trust Differences-in-Differences Estimates?," NBER Working Papers 8841, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  15. Christopher Carpenter, 2004. "Heavy alcohol use and youth suicide: Evidence from tougher drunk driving laws," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 23(4), pages 831-842.
  16. Christopher S. Carpenter, 2005. "Heavy Alcohol Use and the Commission of Nuisance Crime: Evidence from Underage Drunk Driving Laws," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 95(2), pages 267-272, May.
  17. Hahn, Jinyong & Todd, Petra & Van der Klaauw, Wilbert, 2001. "Identification and Estimation of Treatment Effects with a Regression-Discontinuity Design," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 69(1), pages 201-09, January.
  18. Thomas S. Dee, 2001. "The Effects of Minimum Legal Drinking Ages on Teen Childbearing," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 36(4), pages 823-838.
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