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Tighter Alcohol Laws Reduce Odds of Underage Drinking, Study Finds

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States with stronger alcohol policies for adults have lower levels of youth drinking and binge drinking, according to a comprehensive study published last week in the journal Pediatrics.

In the study, researchers created an Alcohol Policy Scale to measure the policy environment of different states. Higher scores on the scale were reflective of a state having more effective and implementable alcohol laws.

The results showed that a 10 percent increase in an Alcohol Policy Scale score resulted in an 8 percent decline in the odds of underage drinking and a 7 percent decline in the odds of underage binge drinking. What's more, researchers found that alcohol policies aimed at the general public and not just young people—such as increasing alcohol taxes or reducing the number of alcohol stores—also corresponded with lower rates of youth drinking.

The latter finding is important, according to Jason Blanchette, a research coordinator both for the study and at Boston Medical Center, because it supports the idea that regulating alcohol consumption among adults can mediate or reduce consumption among children and youths.

"If you ignore adult drinking, you probably won't get nearly as far in addressing youth drinking," said Mr. Blanchette. "You're ignoring a very significant piece of the puzzle."

To determine the Alcohol Policy Scale scores, researchers assembled a panel of 10 alcohol policy experts to help devise a list of successful alcohol control laws and rank them on effectiveness under ideal conditions. Twenty-nine policies ultimately made the cut, with 10 of the policies being youth-oriented. In consultation with the panel, researchers also gave each policy an implementation rating, which factored in things like enforceability or applicability into a policy's Alcohol Policy Scale score.

Underage drinking is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths annually in the United States and was responsible for roughly 189,000 emergency room visits in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People aged 12 to 20 account for 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the nation, with 90 percent of that alcohol consumed during periods of binge drinking, according to the CDC.

Though the study's authors did cite limitations within their research, such as partial subjectivity in rankings and scores, they noted that their work is the first to analyze relationships between youth drinking and state-level alcohol policy environments.

"Traditionally what's happened with policy research is you'll take one policy or two policies in the same study and researchers will evaluate the effect that those one or two policies have had on an outcome like youth drinking," said Blanchette. "But ... unless you take into account the entire policy environment, the research could potentially be confounded by other policies."

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