Should the minimum legal drinking age of 19 years old in British Columbia be reduced?

Alcohol use is the largest contributor to injury, disability, and death among adolescents and young adults aged 10-24 years old. As a result, Canada and other countries worldwide have implemented minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) legislation for many decades now, and drinking-age laws are considered a cornerstone of alcohol-control policies designed to reduce harms among young people. In Canada, the minimum legal drinking age is 18 years of age in Alberta, Manitoba, Québec, and 19 years of age in the rest of the country.

No other alcohol policy has generated more research or debate than minimum legal drinking age legislation. Usually the debates about the most appropriate drinking age involve competing views about how society should assign importance to the harms versus the benefits of such legislation. Some people put more emphasis on the importance of individual choice in alcohol consumption, while other people place more value on restricting alcohol consumption in some age groups so as to safeguard young adults and improve overall public health. And so, there is a healthy tension between individual rights and the greater public good underlying debates about the minimum legal drinking age, and where individuals sit on this continuum will often affect how they interpret the scientific findings.

The large majority of the scientific evidence on this topic, however, is consistent and clear: raising the MLDA is associated with reductions in alcohol-related harms (such as motor vehicle collisions, injuries, assaults, and deaths), and lowering the MLDA is associated with increases in alcohol-related harms.

Advocates for lowering the MLDA might argue that most MLDA studies rely on United States’ data from the 1970s and 1980s, and usually have fatal/nonfatal motor vehicle collisions as their most harmful outcomes. And, critics of MLDA legislation might continue, the large MLDA impacts on motor vehicle collisions observed in the 1970s and 1980s might be substantially diminished in the contemporary British Columbia context due, in large part, to advances in both traffic safety and other alcohol policies (e.g., improvements in road safety/motor vehicle safety; introduction of provincial graduated driver licensing legislation; increases in the severity of penalties for drinking and driving).

Could it be that the MLDA has lost much of its effectiveness in reducing alcohol-related harms among young people in British Columbia?

In four recent studies, my colleagues and I have demonstrated that drinking-age legislation continues to have a powerful impact on alcohol-related harms among young people in Canada. Relative to youth slightly younger than the minimum legal drinking age, young adults just older than the MLDA incur immediate and significant increases in a range of serious alcohol-related harms, including: motor vehicle collisions; inpatient/Emergency Department admissions for alcohol-use disorders, attempted suicides, injuries, assaults; and death. An example of our work was published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.

Along with the prior MLDA literature, our Canadian studies provide up-to-date and persuasive evidence that lowering the MLDA will likely result in significant increases in serious alcohol-related harms among young people in British Columbia. Proponents of a lower MLDA in BC will need to make an even more convincing argument that such substantial damages to youth in British Columbia will be outweighed by the benefits of lowering the drinking age in our province.

Authors:

Dr. Russ Callaghan, PhD (Russ.Callaghan@UNBC.ca); Jodi Gatley, BSc (jgatley@gmail.com)

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Jodi Gatley

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