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The effect of minimum drinking age laws on pregnancy, fertility, and alcohol consumption

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Analysis of micro-level data reveals that changes in the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) could induce changes in the intensity and location of alcohol consumption, sexual behavior, and teen fertility. Effects on teen fertility vary across different populations. Among 15–20 year-old non-poor whites, less restrictive legal access to alcohol decreases the probability of first pregnancy and abortion. For this group, easier legal access to alcohol likely increases the alcohol consumption in bars. For black and poor white young women, the results are sensitive to the alcohol consumption restrictions measure. A decrease in the MLDA increases the probability of first pregnancy and abortion. Yet, using a more precise measure that accounts for the MLDA and the woman’s age, these results generally no longer hold.

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  1. For more details, see review studies by Wagenaar and Toomey (2002), Newbury-Birch (2009).

  2. A reduction in the MLDA across country in the early 1970s was alongside a decrease in the voting age; increases in the MLDA in the 1980s were compelled by the federal law requirements.

  3. If binge drinking is driven by non-beer alcoholic beverages then the MLDA for beer might not be the best measure. For the incidence of first pregnancy, the analysis of the MLDA for liquor yields, generally, qualitatively similar results (some estimates for black women become statistically insignificant).

  4. The abortion laws are discussed in Gold (2003).

  5. In recent years, the Amethyst Initiative, a public movement calling for a re-examination of the MLDA of 21, was supported by the leadership on many campuses.

  6. Wechsler et al. (2000) also reports some evidence in favor of this hypothesis that underage students tend to drink less often, yet consume more drinks per occasion; they are also more likely to drink in private settings.

  7. The Hispanics sample is the smallest, yielding the least reliable estimates particularly in abortion models, which additionally might suffer from the reporting bias.

  8. For exceptions see Dee (1999), Kaestner (2000). The literature review on the topic is in Wagenaar et al. (2009) and on the effects of MLDA—in Wagenaar and Toomey (2002).

  9. See Leigh and Stall (1993), Rashad and Kaestner (2004) for a literature review.

  10. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) contains no data on the retrospective mobility history. Therefore, the timing of past pregnancies cannot be matched to the state of residence or the state policy.

  11. The timing of first pregnancy is identified by month and year of conception variables created by the NLSY.

  12. For a falsification test, an extended data set includes 21–23 year olds. As expected, changes in the MLDA do not affect first childbearing of 21–23 year-old women (supplementary Appendix D, Table D-1).

  13. The comparison of birth and abortion ratios across NLSY, NSFG, and the national statistics is in supplementary Appendix B.

  14. A father’s presence, as well as the time that parents spend with their children can affect risky behaviors (e.g., See (2014) finds a decrease in teen risky behaviors due to parental time supervision). However, comprehensive intertemporal data on the household composition and the time allocation are not available.

  15. Delaney et al. (2013) report a strong association between alcohol consumed by students and drinking by their older siblings. The pregnancy and abortion results are robust to the inclusion of an indicator for the presence of older siblings.

  16. Wagenaar and Tomey (2002) conclude that 44–97 % of outlets in purchase-attempt studies sold alcohol to the underage without a request of age identification. Similarly, Wagenaar and Wolfson (1994) find that the law enforcement actions against outlets selling to minors are also rare.

  17. A further disaggregation into 18–20 and 15–17 age groups substantially reduces sample sizes and for the latter group produces noisy point estimates that lack credibility.

  18. A small number of miscarriages/stillbirths in the data set is insufficient to estimate the multinomial probability model. Instead, I estimate a probit model for abortion using a sample of pregnancies ending only in live births and abortions.

  19. Due to sample sizes, the inclusion of the state-specific linear trends is feasible only in the pregnancy model. The resulting estimates of discrete changes maintain the sign, but generally have larger standard errors. The sensitivity of results varies across the two measures of the policy change. For example, specifications with the “legally eligible” dummy produce qualitatively similar results; specifications with a noisier measure (the MLDA dummy) produce mixed results.

  20. In other words, the policy’s direct effect on black women age 18–20 is smaller and statistically insignificant than the potential indirect effect of the policy on women age 15–17, which is not only larger, but also statistically significant.

  21. The result for Hispanics is peculiar, as a decrease in the MLDA reduces the probability of pregnancy and increases that of abortion. A potential explanation is that the latter might suffer from a reporting bias. This will be the case, if the underreporting of abortions, which generally is observed among Hispanics, is systematic in the states with the more stringent laws (i.e., the MLDA is 21), compared to the states with a more liberal set of laws.

  22. The NLSY does not distinguish between poor and non-poor blacks or Hispanics.

  23. These questions were not asked prior to 1982. The thorough analysis of bar attendance among the underage is not feasible due to the aging of cohorts (the youngest cohort was 17 in 1982). Supplementary appendix E shows alcohol use and bar attendance trends. The trends confirm that drinking varies across races with the highest share among non-poor white women. Not surprisingly, among those ages 18–20 who report drinking, the percentage of women going to bars is substantially higher among those legally eligible to drink.


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I sincerely thank Thomas A. Mroz, Paul W. Wilson, Sumner La Croix, Sang-Hyop Lee, Alan Barreca, Michael Sinkey, and Petru S. Stoianovici for their advice and comments.

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Correspondence to Inna Cintina.

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Cintina, I. The effect of minimum drinking age laws on pregnancy, fertility, and alcohol consumption. Rev Econ Household 13, 1003–1022 (2015).

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