Study: Another Reason to Keep the Drinking Age at 21

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Young women who came of age in the late 1960s and ’70s, when many states had lowered their legal drinking ages to under 21, remained at higher risk of suicide and homicide into adulthood, a new study finds.

After Prohibition, most states had a drinking age of 21. But many lowered the legal age in ’60s and ’70s, when the voting age was simultaneously moved down and men as young as 18 were being drafted to serve in Vietnam, explained Richard A. Grucza, an epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, and an author of the study.

Grucza and his colleagues observed that young people born in states that allowed drinking under 21 had higher rates of drug and alcohol problems. And other previous research had found that drunk driving accidents, homicides and suicides spiked in states with lower drinking ages during the time those laws were in effect. So, Grucza and his team decided to see if such shifts in the drinking age had longer-term effects. “We saw drinking-age changes as a ‘natural experiment’ to see what happens to young people who have easy access to alcohol compared to those whose access is restricted,” said Grucza in a statement.

The researchers looked at data from 1990-2004 U.S. Multiple Cause of Death files and the U.S. Census and American Community Survey, and found that there were more than 200,000 suicides and 130,000 homicides among people who turned 18 between 1967 and 1989, the years during which the legal drinking age was still moving. (The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984, setting the legal age at 21 for all states.)

Researchers found that the risks of suicide and homicide remained higher into adulthood for young people living in states that had lowered their drinking age — but the risks applied only to women. Women who grew up in under-21 states had a 12% higher risk of suicide and 15% higher risk of homicide in adulthood, compared with those in states with a higher drinking age.

It’s not clear why the effect is seen in women, but not in men, but as Grucza noted:

Suicide and homicide are very different phenomena. For homicide, females are victimized by acquaintances in 92% of the cases. If lower drinking ages result in elevated rates of alcohol problems, this could contribute to alcohol-fueled domestic violence. Alcohol use by both women and their partners could contribute to domestic-violence situations.

For suicide, it may be that alcohol contributes to the severity of suicide attempts. In general, women attempt suicide more often than men, but men complete — or die from — suicide more often than women. Alcohol problems may tip the balance by turning attempts into completions more often, and this would be particularly risky for women because of the higher number of attempts.

Based on their data, the researchers estimated that the national drinking age of 21 prevents 600 homicides and 600 suicides each year.

The debate over legal drinking continues to be couched in terms of personal liberties, however. “Alcohol-control policies are always controversial, as many people are generally in opposition to laws which seem to govern individual choices and behavior,” noted Katherine M. Keyes, a postdoctoral fellow in epidemiology at Columbia University, who was involved the study, in a statement.

As ABC News’ Jane E. Allen reported:

[I]n 2008, in response to continued underage drinking and binge drinking on college campuses, as well as support for letting adults make their own choices, college presidents and university chancellors launched the Amethyst Initiative to lower the drinking limit to 18 once more. The initiative also asks “elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use,” according to the Amethyst Initiative website.

But lowering the drinking age isn’t the answer, said Grucza and Keyes, who view the national limit as a matter of public health, rather than personal freedom. Research suggests that the effects of drugs and alcohol may be especially long-lasting on teenagers’ still-developing brains, they said. “[T]his study is an important reminder of the public-health effectiveness of controlling alcohol at the population level during a very critical time in development. These data underscore that, especially for young women, drinking during young adulthood can lead to a wide range of consequences throughout the life course,” said Keyes.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.