Government policy plays a considerable role in limiting our potential raucous, drunken behavior. The tendency to hit the bottle hard, researchers suggest, is affected by an area’s drinking age as well as how cheap local alcohol can be.
While states with lower minimum drinking ages were not likely to see residents drink more frequently or consume more alcohol overall, a new study available online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research finds, they did binge drink more often. (Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks consumed in one sitting for a man and four or more drinks for a woman.)
Researchers tracked the drinking patterns of more than 39,000 participants, many of whom began to partake in the 1970s—when the legal drinking age in some states was as low as 18. Age and education were also compared to alcohol consumption. College students, as a group, have a tumultuous and well-documented history of imbibing with reckless abandon, which lead author Andrew Plunk at Washington University, St. Louis admits is a significant problem.
“It’s also important not to completely forget about young people who aren’t on college campuses,” he added. “In our study, they had the greatest risk of suffering the long-term consequences linked to lower drinking ages.”
The study found that even decades after they first started drinking, men who did not attend college and lived in states with an under-21 alcohol policy were 31 percent more likely to binge drink more than once a month compared to college-going equivalents.
“It wasn’t just that lower minimum drinking ages had a negative impact on people when they were young,” according to Plunk. “Even decades later, the ability to legally purchase alcohol before age 21 was associated with more frequent binge drinking.”
Policy influencing alcohol intake is not limited to setting age limits; increasing the price of booze is also an effective deterrent. A recent study featured in Addiction revealed that in British Columbia between 2002 and 2009, a 10 percent increase in the minimum price for all alcoholic beverages was associated with significant drop—by nearly a third—in deaths caused by alcohol. The rise in minimum drink price has corresponded with a 32 percent decrease in deaths wholly attributable to alcohol, with similar reductions for acute and chronic alcohol deaths between the two and three years after the raise.
“This study adds to the scientific evidence that, despite popular opinion to the contrary, even the heaviest drinkers reduce their consumption when minimum alcohol prices increase,” concluded Tim Stockwell, lead author and director of the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, “It is hard otherwise to explain the significant changes in alcohol-related deaths observed in British Columbia.”