As an appeal to moderating drinking on college campuses, the Amethyst Initiative has encouraged lawmakers to open discussion about lowering the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 and providing more effective education to combat binge drinking.
One hundred thirty college presidents have already signed the initiative, ranging from private liberal arts colleges to East Coast Ivy League universities, such as Johns Hopkins University and Dartmouth College, to high-ranking West Coast colleges such as Occidental College and Pomona College.
However, after input from several of his vice chancellors, University of California President Mark Yudof decided not to sign the initiative.
John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College and the founder of the Amethyst Initiative, argues that the “1984 Drinking Age Act has eliminated adult role modeling.” McCardell suggested that the combination of lowering the age and bringing it back into public view could contribute to a decrease in binge drinking among youth.
In his statement, Mark Yudof maintained that “Neither I, nor my campus colleagues, believe there is a compelling reason to change present law. Nor is there scholarly consensus that lowering the drinking age to 18 can be expected to yield health and safety benefits for young Americans.”
Critics argue that since the drinking age was set at 21 in 1984, alcohol-related traffic deaths among 18 to 20 year olds has declined by 11 percent, even after accounting for safer vehicles. McCardell and his fellow colleagues acknowledge these statistics.
“Fewer young people are drinking now, but so are fewer people of every age group, and although there is a reduction in overall drinking, there has been an increase in binge drinking. If we look particularly at European countries, there’s a higher level of consumption of alcohol, but that doesn’t mean there’s a higher level of binge drinking … The U.S. has a much higher ratio of intoxication to consumption occasions. And that is from a World Health Organization study by Thomas Babor in 2003,” McCardell said.
A 2005 WHO study found that binge drinking has increased in many countries. This was due to the rising availability of alcoholic beverages, aggressive marketing and advertising targeted toward young audiences. The study did not specify the countries in which drinking rates were increasing.
On the other hand, a study compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a vocal opponent to the initiative, claims that most European countries with lower drinking ages not only have higher drinking rates, but higher binge drinking and intoxication rates, as well.
Leila Shams, a fourth-year public health science major who studied in Europe this past summer, shared her experience.
“Even though the drinking age is 18, the kids over there are doing the same thing as kids over here. Lowering the drinking age wouldn’t necessarily change anything …Raising awareness about alcohol on campus can do something to help the problem,” Shams said.
Both those for and against the initiative agree that binge drinking on campus mandates an increase in alcohol education.
“Part of it is education. We need to ask ourselves where [is binge drinking] taking place. Not in bars, restaurants or public places. The law has driven it out of there and leaves it to dorm rooms, apartments and places that are secretive,” McCardell said.
Director of the Health Education Center Ellen Reibling agrees that problems occur when underage drinkers congregate.
“The policies need to be more conservative when there’s a congregation where kids are drinking more because alcohol is usually free,” Reibling said.
On the contrary, Pomona College President David Oxtoby had a different perspective.
“Allowing moderate drinking and bringing it out into the open where it can be modeled and enforced would reduce the incidence of binge drinking, some of which is caused by people drinking alone and behind closed doors,” Oxtoby said.
Two in five students at four-year colleges binge drink, according to the 14-year College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Approximately 50 percent of youth at the age of 15 have had an entire drink of alcohol, approximately 90 percent by age 21. This, McCardell argues, proves that the current drinking age has not been very effective in keeping alcohol out of teenage hands.
However, Harvard researchers indicate that age may not be the chief factor. Their study found a strong link between heavy alcohol use and drinking cultures at many colleges where there is heavily marketed, cheap alcohol, high-volume sellers and weak enforcement of the law by the schools, states or both.
According to the Surgeon General, because underage drinking is ingrained in American culture, it is a difficult trend to change. Research also shows that the problem of binge drinking is worse among college-age students in college versus those who are not in college.
“If you look at policies at liberal arts colleges, it’s not a priority to create environmental prevention. We’re part of a system-wide project on prevention,” Reibling said.
According to Reibling, there is a new intervention program called the Safer Colleges Project that is set to start this year. It will implement strategies that try to monitor parties.
In a letter to UCI Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez, Thomas Parham, assistant vice chancellor for counseling and health at UCI, summarized his view on the topic.
“I believe that lowering the drinking age just invites a host of other problems and/or an exacerbation of the challenges we already face,” Parham said.
The initiative has been gaining media attention, but is still far away from influencing any legislative change from the 1984 Drinking Age Act.