Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lowering the Drinking Age: Why It Should Happen

There have been many stories in the news over the last few days about college leaders asking for the national drinking age to be lowered to 18 (see one article below).

I happen to agree with them. Forget about the obvious arguments that if an 18-year old is old enough to vote, old enough to work, and old enough to enlist in the military and die for his or her country, that he or she is old enough to drink. And forget about Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), who may think this will only increased deaths from alcohol. I have news for all of them: 18 year olds are already drinking, and they have been drinking at this age for decades.

Because many of these 18 year old are currently drinking in environments where bingeing on alcohol is almost rite of passage, the risk is already there that the 18-20 age group will get in an accident or be caught for drunk driving. Just as risky, the current environment may also be encouraging risky sexual behavior that they may regret later in the form of an unwanted pregnancy or STD.

Mind you, lowering the drinking age will not make these situations go away. But it could very well diminish drinking for the “thrill” of it, or drinking because it’s forbidden. It also may actually have the benefit of making college-age students feel more responsible because the lower age would be a sign of trust that we believe they CAN be responsible.

Drinking already is a problem at this age. This means that this age group is getting their hands on alcoholic beverages anyway, despite the law’s attempt to ban them. I can imagine that lowering the drinking age would mean a whole new crop of flashy bars geared to that age that would pop up at light speed around colleges and everywhere else. It wouldn’t mean the drinking would stop. But maybe it would make the “binge” drinking environment go away. After all, there really wouldn’t be the need to drink in excess quantities because one happens to be at a Saturday night party where they can get their hands on it for the night.

But for every action, there should be an equal, opposite reaction. We must, as a country, start to get very, very serious about how we handle drunk drivers at ANY age group. Maybe it should be one strike and you’re jailed for a set period of time. Two strikes, you lose your license for a year or more and can’t get it back unless you complete an alcohol treatment program. Three strikes and you lose your license forever. And for anyone caught behind the wheel of a vehicle involved in an accident while intoxicated, on anything and at any time, that person should serve hard time in prison. And then our law enforcement and court system needs to enforce it.

Let’s face it, the age limit right now is a sham, especially in the college campus environment. It’s time that we treat the 18-20 year old age group like the adult that they should be. And maybe they will learn to act that way.

College leaders hope to renew debate on a lower drinking age

The current limit ignores the reality of drinking on campus and pushes it underground, they say. Opponents say a rollback to age 18 would reverse declines in teen drunk driving.

By Larry Gordon and Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
August 20, 2008

As college students gear up for annual back-to-school parties, a group of university and college presidents in California and across the country this week pushed for a national debate over whether the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18.

The current limit ignores the reality of drinking during college years and drives it underground, making binge drinking more dangerous and students less likely to seek help in an emergency, according to a petition signed by more than 100 campus presidents. Though they don't call for an outright age rollback, the campus chiefs said they support "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."

Their statement provoked some controversy as critics contend that a lower drinking age will cause an increase in drunk driving deaths.

In California, the heads of Occidental, Pomona and Whittier colleges signed the petition, along with leaders of Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Mount Holyoke, Tufts and many small liberal arts colleges elsewhere in the country.

Pomona President David W. Oxtoby said colleges now were in the difficult position of having to enforce the underage ban but also to encourage moderation and offer advice to students who might want to help a drunken friend. Schools, he added, can't sponsor events at which students might emulate responsible and controlled drinking, such as campus faculty receptions, where wine is served.

The result, he said, is that too many students wind up drinking by themselves in their rooms, "and that is the most common place they get seriously ill," Oxtoby said.

Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger and Occidental's Robert Skotheim said they signed the petition to encourage discussion, but said they had not decided whether the drinking age should be 18. "It's time we look at the issue afresh and see whether there are better solutions than we currently have in place because, after all, we haven't solved the problem," Herzberger said.

Many colleges, including Whittier, Occidental and USC, require all incoming students to take an online course on the dangers of drinking.

The petition is part of a Vermont-based movement called the Amethyst Initiative, named after the gemstone that ancient Greeks believed warded off drunkenness. It is sponsored by the Choose Responsibility organization founded by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College, and is funded with private donations, none of which come from the alcoholic beverage industry, its officials said.

McCardell's organization stresses the paradox that 18-year-olds can vote, serve on juries and join the military but cannot legally drink beer. It proposes a drinking license, similar to driver's licenses, for 18- to 20-year-olds who complete an alcohol education program.

The effort, however, was denounced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is urging parents to protest to the college presidents. Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that he was "profoundly disappointed" in the initiative and contended that the signers were ignoring research showing a significant drop in drunk-driving deaths for teens since the age limit was raised to 21. McCardell said some of that reduction may be attributed to safer cars, better enforcement and wider use of "designated drivers."

Although states are free to set their own drinking ages, 21 became the national standard since a 1984 federal law reduced highway funds for states with a lower age.

UCLA and USC officials were approached to sign the petition, but they held off. A spokeswoman said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block wanted more time to confer with other university leaders and examine research about the age limit. USC President Steven B. Sample received the petition last week but hadn't yet taken action, a spokesman said.

Surveys show that almost half of first-year USC students drank before college, but by Thanksgiving, the percentage rose to 80%, Swinford said. "There are many, many first-time drinkers in the first few months of college," Swinford said. "What we have done is be very honest about this as an institution. And trained staff to deal with it." However, she said she doesn't know if a lower drinking age would reduce drinking.

Pomona College sophomore Ted Zwang, 18, said he was pleased with the petition. He said most college students, including himself, drink before 21 but rarely become seriously drunk. He said he learned to drink responsibly since his parents allowed him an occasional glass of wine at home and during travels to countries where drinking is legal.

If the age limit is lowered, more parents might show their 18-year-olds how to drink safely before they go to college, said Zwang, who is from New Jersey. "Now students start to experiment when they are no longer under their parents' supervision," he said. "And that encourages them to drink in ways that are less safe for them."

At USC, pharmacy student Estella Wu, 26, said she had seen teenage girls passed out on streets in San Diego and San Francisco, but she was not sure about the effects of a lower drinking age. "It might make the drinking more visible, but I don't know if it would make it easier to monitor and control," she said.

At Occidental, residence hall officials do not search rooms for alcohol, but students discovered drunk or hosting a drinking party are required to attend a meeting with administrators and may have a reprimand placed in their file, according to Barbara Avery, campus vice president for student affairs. Counseling may be recommended, and parents may be alerted about repeated violations, but students typically do not face suspension or expulsion unless their drinking led to physical injuries or property damage, she said.

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1 comment:

Music Wench said...

Great arguments. In the dark ages when I turned 18, the legal drinking age in the state of Hawaii where I fortunately was born and raised, happened to be 18. We didn't have a higher level of alcoholism or have as many incidents of "binge" drinking, etc. Funny how once you're allowed to drink, it's not as much fun.