With few exceptions, the legal drinking age in Wisconsin and the rest of the United States is 21.
Social scientists already know there's a sizable increase in alcohol-related deaths and violent crime when people reach that age.
But UW-Madison researcher Jason Fletcher wanted to focus on other problems that crop up when people start drinking legally. So, he looked at data from Add Health, a long-term national study covering adolescent to adult health.
Fletcher says one finding is that when legal drinking starts at 21, men are far more likely to drive drunk, get in fights or engage in risky sexual practices.
"There is just nothing I can discern from the data of negative impacts along the outcomes that I examine for women. The individuals in the data, when they turn 21, they do drink more, but the consequences that I examined, women don't seem to have those consequences," Fletcher says.
He says, based on the research, one policy change that should be considered is directing more interventions toward men. For example, reminding them of the dangers of drinking and driving.
"And, it might be a reasonable intervention to remind parents of individuals about to turn 21, that especially their sons, about these negative consequences. Maybe they could at least be part of these interventions, in terms of reducing these risky behaviors right around the legal age of drinking," Fletcher says.
Another part of his study found that parents can't deter all excessive drinking. Fletcher says the data show young adults around 21 living with their parents have larger increases in alcohol-related risky behavior than those young people living away from home.
Fletcher cites that finding as a reason to further dampen an idea that surfaced in the legislature last year to lower Wisconsin's drinking age to 19. Instead, he says his study could even spark talk about raising the legal drinking age for men to 22 or 23.
But, he admits many in the Badger State will find that idea a non-starter.
Fletcher's research was recently published in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy.
Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.
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