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The link between birth outcomes and minimum drinking age limit

Many people in the US think that the minimum legal drinking age of 21 (MLDA 21) is just too old – one of the highest in the world, in fact. After all, most 18-year old Americans can drive, vote, be legally employed, get married without parental consent, and enlist in the military. In the other words, 18-year olds are adults – except when it comes to alcohol. Last year, the Amethyst Initiative, a group which consisted of several university and college heads actually put forward the proposal to lower the MLDA to 18. Their argument is that the current MLDA 21 in place is actually resulting in irresponsible and secret binge drinking among college students. But what would be the consequences of lowering the MLDA?

A University of Georgia researcher looked at data from 1978 to 1988, a decade when the MLD in that state was still 18. And here are the results she found are

  • Prenatal alcohol consumption among 18- to 20-year-old women was higher by 21%.
  • Pregnancy among 18- to 20-year-olds was higher by 4.6% and 3.9% in white and African-American women, respectively.
  • The likelihood of premature delivery in women under 18 increased by 5% and 7% in white women and in African-American women, respectively.
  • The likelihood of women under age 21 delivering a low-birth weight baby was higher by 4% (white women) and 8% African-American women).
  • Unplanned pregnancies are more pronounced among African-American women under 21, with a 25% increase.

The cause of the poor birth outcomes is not due to alcohol consumption itself and its effect on the unborn child (e.g. alcohol fetal syndrome) but rather due to the increase in risky sexual behavior as a consequence of increased alcohol consumption.

This behavior resulted in unwanted pregnancies that in turn led to poor prenatal care. Women, especially very young women with unplanned pregnancies are less likely to take care of themselves or seek prenatal care. With these results, the researcher argues that lowering the MLDA will have a counterproductive effective on the rates of teen pregnancies and birth outcomes.

What do you think? Should the MLDA in the US be kept at 21 or lowered to 18?


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