The products and practices of the alcohol industry cause serious harm to children and youth, for example by affecting their development into healthy adults. The legal minimum age for alcohol purchase and consumption is supposed to protect children, adolescents and youth and prevent alcohol harm as much as possible. However, the low legal minimum age, such as the 16 years of age threshold in Austria, fails to protect young people adequately. It contributes substantially to socio-economic inequalities in children and youth caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
Europe has the world’s highest alcohol consumption rate. Teenage binge and heavy alcohol use is also high across the European region.
New research by economists Alexander Ahammer, Stefan Bauernschuster, Martin Halla and Hannah Lachenmaier shows that this high level of harm is related to the low minimum legal age for alcohol use.
The study was conducted among an Austrian sample of teenagers using three sources of data, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD), the Upper Austrian Regional Health Insurance Fund and a large field study in which minor test buyers tried to purchase alcohol in Upper Austrian shops.
Key results from the study
Key results of the study reveal a reality of substantial alcohol harm among children and youth in Austria. As soon as Austrian’s reach 16 years of age,
- The amount of alcohol consumed in the previous week skyrockets by 90% – from 55 grams of alcohol per week to 105 grams. This amounts to an increase of about three 0.5l bottles of beer on average. The effects are particularly strong for boys and for children from socially disadvantaged families.
- The probability of having had 5 alcoholic beverages or more on at least one or two occasions (binge alcohol use) in the previous month increases by 10 percentage.
- The probability of being hospitalized with alcohol intoxication increases immediately by 42%.
- For teens who have a household history of alcohol problems, alcohol use behavior does not change at 16. The researchers say teens with a history often are using alcohol heavily from before 16 years of age which is why there is no notable jump.
Children and youth from socially disadvantaged families consume even more alcohol once they reach the legal minimum age. Before the 16th birthday the probability of alcohol intoxication is similar among social class. But after turning 16 a clear gap arises in terms of alcohol use and harm among vulnerable children and youth. From the 16th to 21st birthday, hospital admissions for alcohol intoxication among young people from socially disadvantaged families rise higher than others.
What are the causes?
The researchers note that the data confirm the prevailing motto: “If the legislator allows it, then it cannot be so bad”. After turning 16, Austrian children stop considering binge and heavy alcohol use as harmful.
Alcohol is already easily and widely available for minors in Austria even before they reach the legal age limit.
- Out of 4,269 underage test purchase attempts, around 23% were successful.
- 84% of 15 year-olds perceive access to alcohol as ‘easy’ or ‘rather easy’ according to the ESPAD survey.
In an environment where children and youth are already heavily exposed to alcohol, the low legal minimum age provides no protection from the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
The researchers therefore discuss some normative effects of the legal age limit.
- Teens may feel obliged to not have alcohol before the legal age.
- Households might be more relaxed about giving children alcohol once they’ve reached the legal age limit.
What can be done?
Increasing the legal minimum age has been found to have very positive effects for the health and development of children and youth. When the United States (U.S.) increased their legal minimum age from 18 to 21, society saw a range of positive effects:
- 16% median decline in motor vehicle crashes,
- Reduction in alcohol use in the past month among 18 to 21 year olds from 59% in 1985 to 40% in 1991, and
- Alcohol use among people aged 21 to 25 declined significantly from 70% in 1985 to 56% in 1991.
To better protect the most vulnerable children and youth in the absence of an age limit increase, the researchers suggest targeted measures for socio-economically disadvantaged children and youth as well as for kids with a household history of alcohol problems, since the alcohol harm they are exposed to is already high before they reach the legal age limit for alcohol use.
Universitat Passau: “Alcohol at 16 – Legal license to binge drink”