Faculty Notes

Tara Watson: Minimum drinking laws and infant health outcomes

Angela R. Fertiga and Tara Watson
University of Georgia, United States and
Williams College, University of Michigan, and NBER, United States

Available online here.


Alcohol policies have potentially far-reaching impacts on risky sexual behavior, prenatal health behaviors, and subsequent outcomes for infants. After finding initial evidence in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) that changes in the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) are related to prenatal drinking, we examine whether the drinking age influences birth outcomes. Using data from the National Vital Statistics (NVS) for the years 1978–1988, we find that a drinking age of 18 is associated with adverse outcomes among births to young mothers—including higher incidences of low birth weight and premature birth, but not congenital anomalies. The effects are largest among black women. We also report evidence that the MLDA laws alter the composition of births that occur. In states with lenient drinking laws, young black mothers are less likely to report paternal information on the birth certificate, particularly in states with restrictive abortion policies. The evidence suggests that lenient drinking laws generate poor birth outcomes in part because they increase the number of unplanned pregnancies