It’s fashionable to disparage the US for having a legal drinking age of 21. But there’s pretty solid evidence to suggest that Australia could save lives by following suit. From a new research paper:
Long Term Effects of Minimum Legal Drinking Age Laws on Adult Alcohol Use and Driving Fatalities (gated, sorry)
Robert Kaestner and Benjamin Yarnoff
We examine whether adult alcohol consumption and traffic fatalities are associated with the legal drinking environment when a person was between the ages of 18 and 20. We find that moving from an environment in which a person was never allowed to drink legally to one in which a person could always drink legally was associated with a 20 to 30 percent increase in alcohol consumption and a ten percent increase in fatal accidents for adult males. There were no statistically significant or practically important associations between the legal drinking environment when young and adult female alcohol consumption and driving fatalities.
What’s the mechanism? The authors theorise that “a lower legal drinking age puts the youth on a higher trajectory of alcohol use, and alcohol consumption in later life would be higher for those who could legally drink prior to age 21”.
Their estimates suggest that reducing the US drinking age from 21 to 18 would in the long run cost 4000 lives per year. If these magnitudes hold in Australia, this would translate into a few hundred lives saved per year by raising the drinking age.
Of course, the loss would be the pleasure that is currently enjoyed by those who drink legally from ages 18-20. Kaestner and Yarnoff don’t attempt to value this, which is a pity.