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Does It Make Any Difference If You Wait Until 21 to Drink?

Not at all, according to a new study.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Having kids wait until they’re 21 to drink alcohol should make them more responsible drinkers. That’s the theory, anyway. But a newstudy of more than 40,000 adolescents and young adults suggests that minimum drinking ages might not be as valuable as we thought.

“[M]ore than one in three of the U.S. adolescent and young adult newly incident drinkers transition rapidly to [binge drinking],” Michigan State University epidemiologists Hui Cheng and James Anthony write in the online journal PeerJ, and there’s no sign that waiting to drink until one’s early 20s has any impact on those figures. If anything, “postponers” experience their first instance of binge drinking sooner after their first full drink than others, Cheng and Anthony found.

Those conclusions are based on a survey of 24,100 12- to 23-year-olds interviewed as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Cheng and Anthony focused their attention on two variables, the age at which someone had his or her first full drink—sips don’t count—and the age at which he or she first had five or more drinks on one occasion, a standard definition of binge, or heavy episodic drinking (HED). In particular, the researchers focused on the likelihood that someone would have that first binge-drinking occasion within either a month or 12 months of their first drink.

Minimum drinking ages might not be as valuable as we thought.

Although the likelihood of binge drinking within a year of the first drink goes up slightly with age, it makes very little difference whether someone waits until age 21 for their first beer, glass of wine, or cocktail, the researchers found. About 42 percent of men who enjoy their first drink at 21 binge drink within a year—pretty much indistinguishable from the rate for boys between the ages of 15 and 20. The same is true for women: The rate hovers around 30 percent for girls whose first drink is at age 14 or older, compared to 27 percent for women who postpone their first drink until age 21.

If anything, postponing the inaugural drink increases the likelihood of binge drinking within a month of the first drink—that likelihood increases from about 20 percent for adolescent boys to 28 percent for 21-year-old men, and from 12 percent for adolescent girls to 18 percent for 21-year-old women.

That said, the time it takes to go from first drink to binge-drinking isn’t the only thing that matters, Cheng and Anthony point out: “Even though we do not see major age-related differences in HED risk, earlier adolescent drinkers may be particularly vulnerable to cumulative HED risk … or to other adverse drinking consequences.”