College presidents encourage lower drinking age

According to about 100 college presidents, allowing 18-year-old students to drink alcohol could reduce the amount of binge drinking on college campuses. The presidents, from prestigious universities including Duke University, Dartmouth College, and Tufts University, recently joined together in the Amethyst Initiative, which calls on lawmakers to rethink the drinking age.

The initiative began this past July and was started by John McCardell, president of Middlebury College, and eight presidents at other universities, who slowly gathered up signatories.

“Twenty-one is not working,” the official statement says. “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ — often conducted off-campus — has developed.”

The Amethyst Initiative has been met with much opposition from health experts, transportation officials, government leaders, and opponents of drunk driving, the most prominent being Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“Top science, medical and public health experts as well as congressional and state leaders agree on the effectiveness of the 21 minimum drinking age law in saving lives,” MADD insists in their official response to the initiative.

Studies have shown that underage drinking is becoming increasingly dangerous to the lives of college students and that something must be done. According to a 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, college-age deaths from alcohol use nearly doubled, rising from 18 in 1999 to 35 in 2005.

However, Julie Downs, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon, noted the difficulties in relying on just one or a few studies.
“I believe that the data on traffic fatalities is mixed, with one state-by-state analysis suggesting that a drinking age of 21 lowers traffic fatalities by 9 [percent] compared to a drinking age of 18, but other studies showing no effect,” Downs said. “The difficulty is in doing a definitive study, since it’s impossible to do a randomized controlled trial.”

The majority of studies, though, seem to agree that despite past trends due to drinking age, drinking accidents today have reached a dangerous level.

MADD cited a 1997 study in the Journal of Substance Abuse that found 40 percent of college students reporting at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence, with only 6 percent of this group seeking help.

“Setting policy based on what such studies say seems like the prudent approach,” said Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon.

David Creswell, another professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon, noted that the United States should look internationally when dealing with the drinking problem.

“My hope would be that lawmakers could look at the evidence base for what has happened when other countries have lowered their drinking age if this data is available. We know that legislation can have a dramatic effect on health practices, as has been shown on smoking ban laws in California, among other places,” Creswell said.

Downs agreed with Creswell in the United States looking outward for answers.

“There is some evidence, although it’s not conclusive, that in places where teenagers can drink legally at home, that they will drink the occasional glass of wine or beer and will learn about how long it takes for alcohol to have an effect and how drunk they will feel after a single drink,” Downs said.

In many countries, for example, such as France, Italy, and Spain, drinking is part of the culture in which children grow up, and is not thought of as a forbidden activity, according to The Washington Post.

“In contrast [to the Europeans], American college students may have never had anything or never more than a sip to drink and thus don’t appreciate the time delay between drinking and feeling drunk,” Downs said.

According to the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative, lowering the drinking age could have the potential to transform the drinking culture into something more familiar to college students, as seen in Europe. The statements of the initiative particularly mentioned that a younger age of 18 would get rid of the need to drink in secret, as well as the thrill produced by such activities.

At Carnegie Mellon, the Amnesty program protects these secret drinkers.

It allows underage students to get help when they have drunk too much without incurring any contact with city or state police, thus protecting their record — and their health. However, not all colleges have such policies.

While urging for the re-evaluation of the drinking age, the initiative recognizes that its obstacles lie beyond opposition from health experts and drunk driving activists.

It brings up a political incentive for each state to keep its drinking age at 21; a legislation that acts as a deterrent to the initiative’s hopes.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which put into place a penalty of 10 percent of a state's federal highway budget if its drinking age was set lower than 21. Thus, the debate on a state’s drinking age often pits money versus alcohol-related issues, and every state thus far has chosen to keep the age at 21.

However, several professors brought up the fact that there are many other ways to combat college drinking besides changing the drinking age.

“I would predict that lowering the drinking age would have little impact on binge drinking behaviors, as alcohol is already easily available on most college campuses,” Creswell said. “I think a better intervention would be to consider campaigns that promote and reinforce other activities at college, and in drinking in moderation.”

Downs agreed with Creswell in exploring more options but noted the difficulty in choosing the appropriate methods.

“I think it’s worth considering other methods for reducing excessive drinking. But it’s not clear what those methods would be,” Downs said. “It's very hard to change these socially normative behaviors, especially when the severe negative consequences (e.g., alcohol poisoning and death) are relatively rare.”

With college students returning to school en masse across the country, the drinking debate has not been solved, yet has merely just begun all over again.