Public Health Regulation

Impact of Zero Tolerance Laws

According to the 2019 NSDUH survey, 27.7 percent of 18-22 year olds who are not enrolled in college full-time and 33.0% of 18-22 year old full-time college students reported binge drinking in the past month. Should society impose stricter restrictions on drugs and alcohol for younger individuals?

On the one hand, drugs and alcohol harm both the individual and often others (e.g., drunk driving accidents, increased crime). On the other hand, draconian laws can lead to elicit markets and other types of criminal activity. Further, many individuals value the right to choose whether or not to use drugs and alcohol for themselves.

Wherever you fall in the debate, one key data point is how much would more restrictive laws impact health. This is the topic investigated by Abboud et al. (2024). They examine the impact of Zero Tolerance (ZT) laws on health and labor market outcomes. Zero Tolerance laws set strict alcohol limits for drivers under age 21. Using individual-level data from the 2000-2019 American Community Survey (ACS), the authors applied a difference-in-differences methodology combining information on state and year of birth to identify individuals exposed to the laws during adolescence and tracks the evolving impacts into middle age. Using this approach, they find:

ZT Laws led to significant improvements in later-life health. Individuals exposed to the laws during adolescence were substantially less likely to suffer from cognitive and physical limitations in their 40s. The health effects are mirrored by improved labor market outcomes. These patterns cannot be attributed to changes in educational attainment or marriage. Instead, we find that affected cohorts were significantly less likely to drink heavily by middle age, suggesting an important role for adolescent initiation and habit-formation in affecting long-term substance use.

You can read the full article here.