Restrictive Alcohol Policies Reduce Teen Drinking, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 06/02/15

Restricting sales and taxing alcohol has helped reduce teen alcohol consumption, researchers say.

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Teens drink less in states with stricter alcohol policies, even if these policies are targeted at adults, a new study finds.

Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health invented a scoring system to assess the strength of alcohol-related policies in each of all 50 states. These policies include taxing alcohol, restricting sales to certain hours, banning sales on Sundays, and limiting how many places can sell alcohol.

The researchers found that states with stronger alcohol-related policies had lower rates of underage drinking as well as lower rates of binge drinking, based on surveys by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1999-2011. They also found that binge drinking and underage drinking rates were lower when they accounted only for policies targeted at adults, not teens.

"There's a strong overall relationship between [alcohol] policies and teen drinking, but if you account for the difference in youth-specific policies, you find the adult-oriented policies have an equal or greater effect on teen drinking,” said study co-author Dr. Timothy Naimi, an alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.

Experts say policies limiting adult alcohol use may have a “trickle down” effect on kids. "Adult drinking may influence teen drinking through modeling and imitation, which is a strong form of learning," said Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University. "Some research suggests that the role parents play is important. Parents might never drink, but if they allow supervised drinking of their teenager, it still validates the behavior for the teenager."

There is also an economic factor. In states with higher alcohol taxes, adults may buy less booze and keep less of it in the home, making it less available for teens to drink.

Underage drinking is a contributing factor in three out of four leading causes of death among teens: unintentional injuries, homicides, and suicides. Most efforts to crack down on underage drinking have involved educational interventions. But this study suggests that policies to restrict drinking among the overall population could be instrumental in reducing the problem.

"What this study adds is to demonstrate that the policies that influence adult drinking–such as higher alcohol taxes and greater restrictions on alcohol outlets–also affect underage drinking," said Naimi. "The findings underscore the importance of taking steps to reduce excessive drinking overall if we are to continue to make headway in reducing underage drinking."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.