Lower Drinking Age Associated with Poor Birth Outcomes

A new study from the University of Georgia concludes that lowering the legal drinking age could affect the rate of unplanned pregnancies and pre-term births among young women.

The findings suggest that lowering the drinking age makes alcohol more accessible to young people, which could lead to an increase in unplanned pregnancies. Unexpected pregnancies, in turn, result in negative birth outcomes for infants, since teens who get pregnant unexpectedly are less likely to get good prenatal care and may not be as interested in the child as someone who had planned to get pregnant, according to Angela Fertig, one of the authors of the study and an assistant professor at the UGA College of Public Health.

Researchers studied birth records and survey information on alcohol use from 1978 to 1988, a time period when state laws on the minimum drinking age fluctuated. The study found that when the drinking age was 18, the rate of prenatal alcohol consumption among 18- to 20-year-old women increased by 21 percent, and the likelihood of women younger than 21 having a low-birth weight baby increased by 6 percent.

The study also found that African-American women were disproportionately impacted, with a drinking age of 18 associated with a 25-percent greater probability of an unplanned pregnancy.

Fertig said she hoped the study will help broaden the discussion about lowering the legal drinking age. “There are consequences to lowering the drinking age beside traffic fatalities,” said Fertig. “There's the potentially big effect on birth outcomes, and to me that argues that we should leave the minimum drinking age where it is.” 

The study appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Health Economics.

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