New research has found substantial reductions in binge drinking since the national drinking age was raised to 21 two decades ago, but there is one exception: college students. The rate of binge drinking in male college students remain the same, but the rate of drinking in female students has increased dramatically.
Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis say that although policy initiatives aimed at lowering underage drinking have generally been successful and that binge drinking is down among young people overall, it remains a problem on college campuses.
The researchers analyzed data gathered between 1979 and 2006 by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The information comes from more than 500,000 subjects, who were divided into groups according to age, sex, ethnicity, and student status.
Lead researchers Richard A. Grucza, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, said that overall, binge drinking is less common than it once was. “Young men account for the majority of binge drinkers, and their rates have dropped substantially since 1979. However, at the same time, the ‘gender gap’ between male and female drinkers has been closing. In this study, we found that women are drinking more, and their rates of binge drinking have risen over the last 30 years,” Grucza said.
In 2006, the last year for which data are available, more than half of college-age males and almost 40 percent of college-age females reported binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks on a given occasion. The research found reductions in binge drinking, especially among males aged 20 and younger. In males ages 15-17, binge-drinking rates declined nearly 50 percent between 1979 and 2006. During the same period, rates declined more than 20 percent in males aged 18 to 20 and 10 percent in males aged 21 to 23.
On the other hand, binge drinking was statistically unchanged since 1979 in women ages 15 to 20. For women ages 21 to 23, binge drinking rose by about 40 percent. Binge drinking decreased among non-Caucasian males but increased in non-Caucasian females.
Another surprising finding was that binge drinking declined in young men unless they were in college. It increased slightly in young women but was significantly higher in college women.
“The tendency for binge drinking to decline in society has not permeated our college campuses,” said Grucza. “Some researchers have speculated that because colleges are made up of young, mostly unmarried people—with no parental control and no spouse to check in with—they may be more likely to drink to excess than people of the same age who live with their parents or have a spouse. Plus, most have easy access to alcohol because at least some of their peers are 21 or older.”
Since the drinking age of 21 was signed into law in 1984, it has become more difficult for underage drinkers to obtain alcohol and has apparently contributed to lower binge drinking rates among those under 18.
Gruzca says that although some proponents of lowering the drinking age say that the higher drinking age has led to more binge drinking, there is no evidence to support that. “Our study and other studies show the higher age has decreased the amount of alcohol consumed by young people, the number of binge-drinking episodes overall, the number of fatal car crashes, and other adverse alcohol-related outcomes,” Gruzca said.
“There may be good, philosophical arguments about why the drinking age should be lower than 21, but our study demonstrates the higher minimum drinking age has been good for public health.”