Binge Drinking: Does Age Matter?

August 20, 2008 05:14 PM
by Liz Colville
Current and former presidents from around 100 top U.S. colleges are encouraging debate about underage drinking that centers on lowering the national drinking age back to 18.

Bingeing Is the Target

The current law, prohibiting drinking to under-21s, may actually be contributing to the habit of binge drinking among young people, says the Amethyst Initiative in an August 19 Associated Press article. Founded by former Middlebury College president John McCardell, the group has helped to provide a counterpoint in the drinking age debate, long dominated by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

McCardell told AP that the current age limit is “routinely evaded,” but MADD says that doesn’t mean it should be changed. MADD is “urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.”

Amethyst’s hope is that a lower drinking age will desensitize young Americans to the lure of drinking. Moana Jagasia, a Duke sophomore interviewed by AP, agreed with that concept. “If the age is younger, you're getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don't freak out when you get to campus.”

The new group’s efforts are following on the heels of a primarily European trend of parents drinking with their children in order to remove alcohol’s mystique.

According to the Baltimore Sun, assenters of the Amethyst Initiative—college administrators who signed a letter—“did not specifically endorse a lowering of the drinking age, though many who signed it said they thought it should be reduced to age 18.”

Background: Binge drinking and young drivers

Many agree that there is a relationship between the drinking age limit and driving, with legal driving now preceding legal drinking by five to six years. But it may be the gap, or simply the emphasis on drinking, that is problematic. The Washington Post observed in 2004 that Europe has relatively few incidents of teens’ driving drunk despite low drinking ages. The article credits “stiff” driving regulations: in Europe, most licenses aren’t awarded until age 18. “It’s not that young people in Europe are more careful. It’s that they haven’t got the car,” an officer at Eurocare, a group that works toward lowering European alcohol consumption, told the Post. But binge drinking rates are on the rise, according to Eurocare.

The Amethyst Initiative and MADD agree that binge drinking should be the focus of both groups’ efforts. College Drinking Prevention, part of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), enumerates many of the incidents associated with college drinking and statistics on those incidents, including death, injury and poor academic performance.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control include the finding that around “90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 years in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.”

On MADD’s Web site, the group gives a brief history of the drinking age in the United States, noting that at the “height of the Vietnam War,” the prevalent “decrease in the drinking age brought about an increase in alcohol traffic fatalities and injuries. So much so that, by 1983, 16 states voluntarily raised their drinking age back to 21.” In 1983, Ronald Reagan enacted a law making the age-21 limit mandatory throughout the U.S.

Opinions & Analysis: A debate about age

On Decoder, the blog of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Joe Keenan speaks to the issue that many health experts and others have turned to when defending the age-21 law: the impact of letting 18-year-olds legally drink. Government data has shown that drinking younger negatively affects future alcohol use and abuse, and Keenan asks, “what about the 18-year-old high-school seniors who would be free to buy a six-pack? What impact would this have in high schools if some students can drink?” College binge drinking only tells part of the story, he suggests.

In the Kansas City Star, Barb Shelly suggests that the isolated “ivory tower” environment of colleges and universities is obscuring the big picture: “My memory of college is that the drinking, while decidedly illegal, wasn't all that clandestine. It was pretty much out in the open. And I'm not tracking why the presidents think kids will drink less at the frat house keg party because it's legal…do these academic folks ever leave their college towns?”

In a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, the staff summarizes the viewpoints of both the Amethyst Initiative and MADD, who for the moment are going to be seen as the poles of the debate. MADD says that McCardell’s plan is “a sign that academia is looking for an easy out,” while McCardell counters that “awareness” and “education” have saved lives, not a higher drinking age. This suggests that if any legislative change comes from the revived debate, it may focus on education initiatives, not necessarily lowering the drinking age.

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