To what extent do environmental factors influence individual drinking choices by youth? It is interesting in this regard to analyze trends in youth drinking over time. Based on their analysis of Monitoring the Future data for high school seniors, Cook and Moore (2001) report that the 30-day prevalence of drinking and also of heavy drinking1 peaked in 1979, and then declined by approximately one-third (30.6 and 37.5 percent, respectively), reaching a low point in 1993 and increasing only slightly since then. This downward trend is unrelated to demographic changes in the composition of the population of high-school seniors and cannot be fully explained by trends in prices, minimum drinking age, or availability (Cook and Moore, 2001). However, this trend in drinking prevalence closely tracks the societal trend in drinking, as measured by national per capita consumption. Thus, whatever the reason for the decline in youth drinking during the 1980s, it seems to be related to, and perhaps in some sense is the result of, the overall decline in drinking in the society.
More persuasive evidence of the link between “wetness” and youth consumption comes from a study of individual drinking behavior. Cook and Moore (2001) analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) that included annual items on individual drinking for 1982-1985 and 1988-1989. The initial cohort of 12,000 respondents ranged in age from 17 to 24 at the beginning of this period in 1982, so that the NLSY data provide information on drinking trajectories for older teens and those in their twenties. They found that, even after controlling for family, religion, schooling, aspirations, employment, and cognitive ability, various aspects of the environment contributed significantly to patterns of drinking. Specifically, youth with similar backgrounds and individual characteristics were more likely to drink if they lived in a state with relatively high per capita consumption.
The minimum drinking age and the excise tax on beer are also related to youth drinking. Thus, an 18-year-old living in a state in which his drinking was legal in 1982 would have been more likely to drink (and to drink heavily) than an identical twin living in a state with a higher minimum drinking age. Increases in the beer tax (which has a direct effect on average price) generally tend to lower drinking, although it is harder to pin down with the NLSY data; however, other studies are quite consistent at documenting that taxes and prices influence youth drinking (Chaloupka and Wechsler, 1996). This research suggests that a “wetter” environment may provide adolescents with more social occasions to drink, more positive attitudes about drinking, more advertising and outlets, and more lenient regulations concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol. In short, such environments have an enabling effect on underage drinking.