Alcohol Use Before & After The 21st Birthday

Among young adults approaching their 21st birthdays (i.e., persons surveyed in the 30 days prior to their 21st birthdays), 86.1 percent had used alcohol in their lifetime, including 62.8 percent who had initiated use before their 18th birthdays.

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Rates of past month and binge alcohol use were higher among young adults who had recently turned 21 than among those who were still 20 years old.

Rates of past month and binge alcohol use among 21 year olds declined and then stabilized in the months following their 21st birthdays, but their rates still remained higher than those for 20 year olds.

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There is an ongoing debate among legislators, educators, and public health officials concerning the optimal age at which young adults should be given the right to purchase and possess alcohol. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (23 U.S.C. § 158) required all States to set that age at 21. Recent research examining alcohol use behaviors among young adults in the weeks leading up to and following their 21st birthdays has found that the 21st birthday is often marked by an increase in alcohol consumption and its negative consequences and related risk factors. Examination of patterns of alcohol use among a nationally representative sample of 20 and 21 year olds may further inform this line of research.

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The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) includes questions about lifetime, past month (i.e., current), and binge alcohol use, as well as the age at first alcohol use. Binge alcohol use is defined as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours of each other) on at least 1 day in the past 30 days.

This issue of The NSDUH Report examines alcohol use before and after the 21st birthday. Using the information on the respondents’ date of birth along with the date they were interviewed, it is possible to examine lifetime, current, and binge alcohol use among persons aged 20 or 21 in time intervals before and after the 21st birthday. All findings in this report are annual averages from combined 2002 to 2008 NSDUH data.

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