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College presidents seek debate on lowering drinking age

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

College presidents from about 100 of the nation's best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

"This is a law that is routinely evaded," said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the organization. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."

Other prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.

But even before the presidents begin the public phase of their efforts, which may include publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks, they are already facing sharp criticism.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.

Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem.

Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependance. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

A recent Associated Press analysis of federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.

McCardell's group takes its name from ancient Greece, where the purple gemstone amethyst was widely believed to ward off drunkenness if used in drinking vessels and jewelry. He said college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it's illegal.

The statement the presidents have signed avoids calling explicitly for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucks the trend.

But the statement makes clear the signers think the current law isn't working, citing a "culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking," and noting that while adults under 21 can vote and enlist in the military, they "are told they are not mature enough to have a beer." Furthermore, "by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

"I'm not sure where the dialogue will lead, but it's an important topic to American families and it deserves a straightforward dialogue," said William Trout, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has signed the statement.

But some other college administrators sharply disagree that lowering the drinking age would help. University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Clinton, declined to sign.

"I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," Shalala said in a telephone interview. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."

McCardell claims that his experiences as a president and a parent, as well as a historian studying Prohibition, have persuaded him the drinking age isn't working.

But critics say McCardell has badly misrepresented the research by suggesting that the decision to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 may not have saved lives.

In fact, MADD CEO Chuck Hurley said, nearly all peer-reviewed studies looking at the change showed raising the drinking age reduced drunk-driving deaths. A survey of research from the U.S. and other countries by the Centers for Disease Control and others reached the same conclusion.

McCardell cites the work of Alexander Wagenaar, a University of Florida epidemiologist and expert on how changes in the drinking age affect safety. But Wagenaar himself sides with MADD in the debate.

The college presidents "see a problem of drinking on college campuses, and they don't want to deal with it," Wagenaar said in a telephone interview. "It's really unfortunate, but the science is very clear."

Another scholar who has extensively researched college binge-drinking also criticized the presidents' initiative.

"I understand why colleges are doing it, because it splits their students, and they like to treat them all alike rather than having to card some of them. It's a nuisance to them," said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health.

But, "I wish these college presidents sat around and tried to work out ways to deal with the problem on their campus rather than try to eliminate the problem by defining it out of existence," he said.

Duke faced accusations of ignoring the heavy drinking that formed the backdrop of 2006 rape allegations against three lacrosse players. The rape allegations proved to be a hoax, but the alcohol-fueled party was never disputed.

Duke senior Wey Ruepten said university officials should accept the reality that students are going to drink and give them the responsibility that comes with alcohol.

"If you treat students like children, they're going to act like children," he said.

Duke President Richard Brodhead declined an interview request. But he wrote in a statement on the Amethyst Initiative's website that the 21-year-old drinking age "pushes drinking into hiding, heightening its risks." It also prevents school officials "from addressing drinking with students as an issue of responsible choice."

Hurley, of MADD, has a different take on the presidents.

"They're waving the white flag," he said.

Associated Press Writer Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this report from Durham, N.C.

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Al these collages allowing underage drinking on campus are encouraging the kids to break the law. There goverment and state funds should be stopped until they straiten up.

-- Posted by newman90 on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 9:11 AM

This is ridiculous. This is all about liability falling on the college. Not about the welfare of students. Well let's lower the age to smoke to 14 because people under the age of 18 smoke anyway. We can't stop them. How crazy does that sound. You are simply telling these students that if they do the wrong thing long enough then authority figures will eventually give in.

-- Posted by lovemyfamily on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 10:23 AM

This is ridiculous. This is all about liability falling on the college. Not about the welfare of students. Well let's lower the age to smoke to 14 because people under the age of 18 smoke anyway. We can't stop them. How crazy does that sound. You are simply telling these students that if they do the wrong thing long enough then authority figures will eventually give in.

-- Posted by lovemyfamily on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 10:23 AM

Oh stop!!!

In this Country 18 is an ADULT!!!PROHIBITION

to anyone under 21 does not and will not ever work!

Prohibition of alcohol to those 18 years through 21 does nothing but increase consumption!This was true in the early part of the 20th century when alcohol was

prohibited.21 percent of the population abused alcohol

before prohibition and after it was enacted,that figure

jumped to above 45 percent!This is a no brainer folks.

This of course does not take into account that 18 year olds are adults and that they can and do die for their Country.Why don't they share the same liberties as 21 year olds.I don't give a crap about what the Feds have said about cutting off funds to States that pass laws to lower the drinking age!I am a Federalist and States should decide issues like these without fear from the screwed up Federal Government concerning funds for roads and bridges.The feds should be involved in infrastructure and defense and let the States control their own destiny!!!!

-- Posted by GREYWOLF on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 10:41 AM

MADD has good intentions, but plays on emotions rather than rational thought processes. Ignoring binge drinking is the worst thing they could do. Studies show less binge drinking/drinking to intoxication among this age group in countries where drinking is learned and respected at home and not hidden/buried due to antiquated laws.


-- Posted by The Dictionary on Tue, Aug 19, 2008, at 12:33 PM

Underage college kids will always drink whether it's legal or not..it doesn't always happen on campus either, it happens downtown, in people's homes and etc. It's a problem that, sadly, cannot be stopped.

-- Posted by Stones62 on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 11:11 AM

Growing up, alcohol was not a foreign object. I didn't grow up with alcoholics for parents, but it wasn't locked away in a cabinet. When my brother and I came into our teen years, it wasn't out of the ordinary to have a strawberry daiquiri with mom, a beer with dad. As a result, we didn't abuse it, and still don't. My cousin, on the other hand, was kept away from it, hearing it was "evil". He spent the night at our house, and after everyone was asleep, he drank himself sick out of curiosity. The more kids hear that drinking is bad and evil, the more they'll be inclined to do it, and do it to excess. I think if the law was changed, there would initially be a flow of kids rushing to drink, but after the cool of being legal age wears off, our numbers will level back off.

18 is adult. Let's treat them that way.

-- Posted by katj85 on Wed, Aug 20, 2008, at 1:38 PM

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