August 24, 2008

Lower Drinking Age Deserves Revisiting

College campuses are not boarding schools with curfews, gender segregation and hall monitors. They are designed to be inhabited by adults.

Every societal measure - save one - treats college students as adults. At age 18, young people can get married. They can join the military and die for their country. They can vote for president. They can sit on a jury and impose the death penalty. If they commit a crime, they are tried as adults and face incarceration in adult prisons.

But most college students are still considered juveniles under alcohol consumption laws, an anomaly that creates a dilemma for university officials. Should they mobilize nightly liquor raids and risk chasing students off campus, increasing the incidence of drunken driving? Or should colleges become safe havens for illegal drinking?

The predicament has led college presidents from across the country to question the logic behind the current drinking age of 21. More than 100 higher education leaders, including representatives from five Virginia institutions, have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, which is challenging national and state leaders to revisit the issue.

The college presidents have taken heat from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but they have raised valid issues that need to be revisited.

The presidents argue that the elevated drinking age, along with commercial advertising that promotes excessive consumption, reinforces unhealthy attitudes by treating alcohol as a forbidden pleasure.

Existing age limits make it more likely that a young person's first drink will be at a fraternity keg party rather than a family gathering around the dinner table.

Congress voted in 1984 to reduce road funding to states that permitted alcohol consumption before age 21. Virginia's legal beer- drinking age was 19 at the time. All 50 states complied with the federal mandate, but Kentucky, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota have considered lowering the threshold again.

Numerous studies funded by the National Institutes of Health have concluded that the new minimum legal drinking age has reduced alcohol-related traffic deaths among adults under 21. However, the decline in those fatalities began several years before Congress established the new age limit, leading other researchers to conclude the improvements are also influenced by changing public attitudes about drinking and more particularly about drunken driving.

At the same time, states have adopted tough new penalties for drunken driving, with Virginia taking the lead in those efforts.

College presidents with the Amethyst Initiative are not suggesting that excessive drinking and reckless behavior be condoned, nor should they. They are simply arguing that young people should be given clear and consistent rules about when they are expected to take on adult responsibilities.

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