Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, September 14, 2018

Fletcher’s research sheds light on lowering drinking age

Fletcher’s research sheds light on lowering drinking age

Research by University of Wisconsin–Madison Professor Jason Fletcher provides new information about the effects of legal alcohol access at age 21 on previously unexplored or underexplored risky behaviors.

Fletcher’s paper Estimating Causal Effects of Alcohol Access and Use on a Broad Set of Risky Behaviors in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy summarizes the research findings, which go beyond the well-documented and more-immediate effects of alcohol access and heavy drinking on mortality and arrests – relatively infrequent outcomes.

The study uses the variation generated by the increase in legal alcohol access at age 21 to replicate prior studies of the impacts on binge drinking, drug use, and some measures of criminal activity. It also explores novel measures of risky behaviors, including self-reports of (rather than arrests for) drunk driving, drinking‐related risky sex, interpersonal troubles, hangovers, and violence.

Using data from Add Health, a national longitudinal study of adolescent to adult health, Fletcher found that legal access to alcohol increases binge drinking; however, the effects for other behaviors vary considerably by gender. For example, men (but not women) face an increased risk of problems with friends and risky sexual behavior at 21.

Fletcher’s research also allows some suggestive policy implications on whether changing the minimum drinking age may reduce these consequences. The results speak to recent policy discussions in Wisconsin and around the country. For example, in late 2017, several Wisconsin lawmakers proposed lowering Wisconsin’s legal drinking age to 19, in part so that teenagers can transition into alcohol use under parental supervision.

Fletcher’s results do not find evidence to support lowering the drinking age. “The findings suggest no harm reduction associated with binge drinking for young adults living with their parents around age 21,” Fletcher’s paper says. “In fact, young adults living with their parents (regardless of whether they are in school) have larger increases in alcohol-related risky behaviors than those living away from their parents.”