Minimum Drinking Age Laws and Infant Health Outcomes

Recently, debate over the drinking age as a policy tool has been reignited. However, potential effects of drinking age on pregnancy and drinking during pregnancy, as well as on outcomes for infants, has received little attention. The authors used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine whether minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws and birth outcomes were related. They chose to study effects of alcohol policy, rather than alcohol use, because studying policy effects should eliminate the concern of sample selection.

Key Findings:

  • Black women ages 18–20 years old are 10 percent more likely to report drinking in the 12 months before giving birth when the drinking age is 18.
  • For Caucasian women, younger mothers are more likely, but only slightly, to have low birth weight babies in states with a drinking age of 18. The effect was larger for black women. Controlling for prematurity does not fully account for the relationship between MLDA laws and birth weight.
  • For Caucasians and blacks, an 18-year-old drinking age is associated with significant increases in births in 18–20 year old women. For black women, lower MLDAs are associated with higher rates of missing paternal information on birth certificates. The authors suggest that missing paternal information may be more likely to be the result of unintended pregnancies, and/or may reflect maternal or paternal characteristics associated with poor infant outcomes.

The authors conclude that a drinking age of 18 is associated with slightly higher rates of low birth weight and premature births, with black women more affected than Caucasian women. Several related findings point to the idea that a lower drinking age raises the number of births resulting from unintentional teen pregnancies.