College Presidents Push for Lower Drinking Age

By Christine Lauff
Staff Writer

John McCardell, former President of Middlebury College in Vermont, has begun the Amethyst Initiative, which is challenging the reliability and effectiveness of the current drinking age. He believes the drinking age should be lowered to 18, claiming that the increasing commonality of binge drinking between 18 and 21 year olds, which leads to about 1400 deaths per year, is due to the current drinking age being too high. So far, McCardell has gained support from 123 college presidents in his movement to lower the drinking age.

McCardell and his supporters believe that by forcing Americans to wait until they’re 21 to legally drink alcohol, the law has made drinking harmfully popular and appealing among teenager.  Because of this, when these teens are placed in a college atmosphere, where access to alcohol is increased, they binge drink. Also, McCardell and his supporters have brought up the injustice of the situation that the United States will allow an 18 year old to vote for the leader of the country, as well as to die in war, but that that same person is too young and immature to consume alcohol.

“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said McCardell, referring to the current drinking law. “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.” It cannot be truthfully argued that those between the ages of 18 and 21 find the current drinking law unfair, but, an important question to consider when thinking about whether the law should be changed is, why are they so determined to be permitted to drink?

On the other side of the debate, many groups, including MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), are totally opposed to lowering the drinking age. MADD believes that universities have become lax and as a result, would rather do away with the law than enforce it. Alexander Wagenaar, an epidemiologist and expert on alcohol safety at the University of Florida agrees with this perception, stating: [college presidents] “see a problem of drinking on college campuses, and they don’t want to deal with it. It’s really unfortunate.” MADD also believes that lowering the drinking age would increasing the number of deaths related to drunk driving, which already is, on average, 1700 per year.

When a moment is taken to study both sides of this argument, it is easy to which side has the more valid point. Those for lowering the drinking age wish to do so to avoid dealing with the problem of underage drinking. Those against it wish to keep the legal drinking age 21 to prevent alcohol related deaths. Which is more important, avoiding a problem or preventing unnecessary death?

Lowering the drinking age would create disarray in the United States. It is not uncommon for those under the age of 21 to ask an older person to buy alcohol for them. Usually, however, these people are at least close to, if not over the age of 18. If the law allows 18 year olds to buy alcohol, these teens will buy it for those even younger than themselves. This is a problem for two reasons: growth and development are not entirely complete until age 21, and kids who consume alcohol before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop a drinking problem than those who wait until they are 21. It has also been proven that consuming alcohol regularly lowers bone mass, prevents proper growth and also inhibits mineral content in bones.

McCardell’s reasoning that 18 year olds should be permitted to drink alcohol because they can legally vote and go to war, is also misguided. There is no draft in the US, so, those who are involved in the military choose to be, and furthermore, only 22% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 were registered to vote in 2002, while 80% of teens admit to drinking alcohol before the age of 20. These statistics prove the extreme lack of responsibility in teens and young adults.

Lowering the drinking age is an inarguably dire idea. Alcohol is an addictive substance that, if used excessively, can lead to death. By lowering the drinking age to 18, the availability of alcohol to young teens would greatly rise, increasing the number of alcohol related crimes, accidents and deaths. University presidents need to enforce the current drinking law on their campuses. If alcohol were not a problem, the legal drinking age would have remained 18, as it was in some US states prior to 1984. However, statistics show that 159,000 current first year college students will leave school within the next year due to alcohol related issues, 90% of rapes on campuses are alcohol related, 70% of students admit to having sexual relations as a result of alcohol use, during which one fifth of whom abandon safe sex practices and 60% of women have contracted an STD. Why would anyone want to dispose of a law that is in use to prevent these problems? With these statistics already being too high under the current drinking laws, I can honestly say it will be disheartening to see how much they’ll rise if the drinking age is lowered.

A 60-Minutes segment covering John McCardell and the Amethyst Initiative’s drinking age debate will air this fall on CBS News.