Minimum Legal Drinking Age

The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA), also referred to as the Age 21 laws, refers to the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984. While state laws set the legal drinking age in their own jurisdictions, the Uniform Drinking Age Act encouraged states to set the age at 21 by restricting federal transportation funds from those states that maintained a lower drinking age.

A Brief History

Following Prohibition, nearly all US states established an age-21 MLDA, a move designed to reduce youth access to and negative consequences of alcohol use. During the early 1970s, a trend toward lowering the MLDA to age 18, 19, or 20 began in the United States, providing many natural experiments. Several studies in the 1970s demonstrated that motor vehicle crashes increased significantly among teens when the MLDA was lowered (Cucchiaro et al, 1974; Douglas et al, 1974; Wagenaar, 1983, 1993; Whitehead, 1977; Whitehead et al, 1975; Williams et al, 1974, as cited by the AMA.)

Citizen advocacy groups responded to this evidence by pressuring legislators to raise the MLDA back to 21, prompting passage of the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984. All states had restored an age-21 MLDA by 1988, once again providing researchers with many natural experiments to assess effects of these policy changes on alcohol consumption and related problems among.

The Debate

The MLDA discussion involves several issues. On one hand, some campus and community leaders celebrate setting the legal drinking age at 21 as the soundest alcohol control policy ever passed, citing multiple research studies. Prevention professionals also note other considerations such as the effect of alcohol use on the still-developing teenage brain and the 'trickle-down effect' of giving legal access to alcohol to teenagers who might then pass it on to even younger friends.

On the other hand, some campus and community leaders propose changing the drinking age to 18 to match other rights and responsibilities given at that age. They also claim that teenagers can be taught to drink responsibly, reducing harm caused to themselves and others.

In weighing these factors, policy makers can refer to more than 20 years of research and practices that have moved the alcohol abuse prevention field forward in its effectiveness. Careful review of the data is a necessary step toward forming an opinion on any public health issue'especially this one, where instructive data are abundantly available.

The MLDA in the Context of Effective Prevention

The drinking age is just one part of the environment that young adults operate in and respond to in their decisions about alcohol use. Campus administrators and prevention professionals can draw on an array of effective, research-based strategies to address problem behaviors on campus that include both policies and programs that steer students toward responsible decisions.

A comprehensive approach to preventing student alcohol abuse brings about change at the institutional and community levels, in addition to the public policy level where the drinking age is set. This approach is grounded in the principle that people's attitudes, decisions, and behavior'and in this case, those that relate to alcohol use'are shaped by the physical, social, economic, and legal environment. The many aspects of this environment can be shaped by prevention advocates, campus officials, government officials, and others. This model, termed environmental management, is supported by scientific research for its effectiveness in bringing about lasting and positive change on a college campus.

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