Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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Lower drinking age linked to higher dropout rate

Another correlation has been discovered amid the data people are mining these days, trying to guide public policy through data analysis. This one is a study out of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, and it shows data that suggest more kids would drop out of high school if the legal drinking age were lowered to 18.


High school drinkers may have more friends who can offer them alcohol if the drinking age is lowered to 18.

Researchers looked at data from the 1970s and 1980s, when some states lowered the age at which young people could buy alcohol to 18. Federal law set the legal drinking age back to 21 in the mid-80s, but because of the threat posed by clandestine binge drinking on college campuses, some lawmakers have suggested lowering it again.

High school students in states where the legal drinking age was lower experienced a 4- to 13-percent higher dropout rate than states with a legal drinking age of 21, researchers found.

“The minimum legal drinking age [MLDA] changes how easy it is for a young person to get alcohol,” Andrew Plunk, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School, said in a news release.

“The MLDA of 18 likely had a large impact on high school dropout rates,” researchers write, “suggesting that the presence of legal-aged peers in a high school setting increased access to alcohol for younger students. Our results also suggest that policy can promote less dangerous drinking behavior even when familial risk of alcohol use disorders is high.”

Dr Plunk said the debate about carving out solutions to college binge drinking misses any consideration of what might happen to high schools if the drinking age were to be lowered. “I think this study gives us some idea of what could happen if we lower the legal drinking age,” he said. “It suggests to me that we’d see this same dropout phenomenon again.”

Findings are published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Plunk AD, Agrawal A, Tate WF, Cavazos-Rehg P, Bierut, LJ, and Grucza RA (2015). Did the 18 drinking age promote high school dropout? Implications for current policy. J Studies on Alcohol & Drugs, 76(5), 680-689. DOI: 10.15288/jsad.2015.76.680).

In February 2014, the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that young people “in the 12th grade age range (ages 16 to 18) who have dropped out of school prior to graduating are more likely than their counterparts to be current users of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and other illicit drugs.”

Again, I emphasize that just because alcohol use occurs in many of the same individuals as dropping out of high school, it doesn’t mean one “causes” the other. These studies report no line of causation between the individuals who abuse alcohol and those who drop out of high school.

However, dropouts are more likely than their peers who finish high school to be current drinkers, and having friends who can legally buy alcohol for them could be one of the causes for that underage alcohol abuse we might want to think about attacking, not boosting.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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