Monday, September 8, 2008

Lowering the Drinking Age Affects Teenage Brain Development and Death Rate

In response to controversial efforts by the Amethyst Initiative to revisit the debate on lowering the national drinking age from 21 to 18, the Georgia Underage Drinking Prevention Initiative of The Council on Alcohol and Drugs affirms its opposition to any attempts to change the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA). Lowering the drinking age would have terrible consequences for youth and communities throughout Georgia. Underage drinking, particularly on college campuses, is pervasive and has major repercussions, but lowering the drinking age is not the solution.

The Amethyst Initiative was launched last month with support from many college chancellors and presidents who believe that the 21-year-old drinking age is not working and has helped to create a culture of binge drinking. To date about 120 university leaders nationwide have given their support to this Initiative.

2007 Monitoring the Future results reveal that now 28% of high school seniors have never used alcohol in their lifetime.1 This means that more than three times as many 18-year-olds have not consumed any alcohol since the drinking age was raised to 21. Clearly this is a societal prevention success that we should not undermine by lowering the drinking age back to 18. The issue of whether to lower the drinking age should be dependent on results and research—not rhetoric.

Given that we know that prevention works, and that we are achieving success, we cannot afford to return to the outdated policy of lowering the drinking age. Instead, we need to collectively reinforce the progress we have made to date. Comprehensive community-wide strategies involving all sectors of the community have proven effective in reducing underage drinking. Such efforts can include, but are not limited to: addressing access and availability of alcohol, changing community norms, community organizing and mobilization, environmental policy changes, heightened enforcement, media advocacy and messaging, and school-community partnerships. These prevention efforts have contributed to a 21.7% decrease in the number of 12th grade students reporting lifetime prevalence of alcohol use between 1984, when the 21-year-old mandate was issued, and 2007.2

Additionally, science confirms that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until the early- to mid-20s.3

As a result, alcohol use prior to age 21 can create problems in brain development and function. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), even a “single, moderate dose of alcohol can disrupt learning more powerfully in people in their early twenties, compared to those in their late twenties. The effects of repeated alcohol consumption during adolescence may also be long-lasting. Studies in humans have detected cognitive impairments in adolescent alcohol users weeks after they stopped drinking, and a different pattern of brain response to tests of memory than among non-abusers.” It is in the best interest of our youth to ensure that the age of onset for alcohol use is delayed as long as possible. This is proven by the fact that youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence as an adult than those who wait until age 21.4

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports show that the Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21 has reduced traffic fatalities involving drivers aged 18 to 20 years by 13%, saving 900 lives every year. Approximately 36 of those young lives saved each year are in Georgia. “The State has a duty to protect its children. Reducing the legal drinking age undermines this obligation,” says Chuck Wade, President and CEO of The Council on Alcohol and Drugs.

Furthermore, since the federal 10% highway fund incentive—which encourages states to mandate that the drinking age is 21—was passed, more than 25,000 lives have been saved.5

Though lowering the drinking age will remove the immediate enforcement issue on college campuses and shift this responsibility to society at large, it will not change the major costs and consequences associated with alcohol abuse. Consider the following statistics:

● 65.9% of those youth reporting heavy alcohol use had also engaged in one or more of the following delinquent behaviors: participating in a serious fight at school or at work, participating in a group-against-group fight, attacking someone with the intent to seriously hurt that person, stealing or attempting to steal something worth $50 or more, selling illegal drugs, and/or carrying a hand gun within the last year.6

● Among college students, underage drinking was involved in 50,000 incidents of alcohol related date rape and 430,000 assaults were committed by students who were drinking.7

● Last year, underage drinking was a factor in 7,286 fatal car accidents.8

● Underage drinking is also costly: It cost the citizens of Georgia $1.5 billion in 2005. This translates to a cost of $1,753 per year for each youth in the state. Georgia ranks 40th among the 50 states.9

The Council on Alcohol and Drugs is a 39-year-old nonprofit alcohol and drug prevention agency and an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The Council on Alcohol and Drugs is a substance abuse prevention and education agency that develops programs and materials based on the most current research on drug use and its impact on the community. The Council's mission is to build healthy, stable communities by combating substance abuse, and related problems, through prevention education, information, and advocacy. The Council has also renewed its efforts in the prevention and reduction of underage alcohol consumption in Georgia. For more information contact Simone Powell at The Council on Alcohol and Drugs at 404-223-2484 or, or visit the website:

1Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G. & Schulenberg, J. E. (December 11, 2007). Overall, illicit drug use by American teens continues gradual decline in 2007. University of Michigan News and Information Services: Ann Arbor, MI. Available:
3Winters, Ken. (2008). Adolescent brain development and drug abuse: Research indicates that brain development is still in progress during adolescence; immature brain regions may place teenagers at elevated risk to effects of drugs. Philadelphia, PA. Available:
4Grant, B. F. (1998). Alcohol Health and Research World. “The impact of a family history of alcoholism on the relationship between age at onset of alcohol use and DSM-IV alcohol dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey.” Volume 22, Issue 2. Bethesda, MD.
5U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2007). Traffic safety facts 2006: A compilation of motor vehicle crash data from the fatality analysis reporting system and the general estimates system. Washington, DC. Available:
6Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2005). The NSDUH report: Alcohol use and delinquent behaviors among youths. Available:
7National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2002). A call to action: Changing the culture of drinking at U.S. colleges. Bethesda: NIAAA. Available:
8U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2007). 2006 Traffic safety annual assessment—alcohol-related fatalities. Washington, DC. Available:
9The International Institute for Alcohol Awareness (IIAA). (2006). A Project of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE).
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