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August 22, 2008

The Drinking Age

Beer2 This debate keeps going on and on: the issue of underage drinking, the risks—and tragedies, even deaths—associated with binging, and the role of the legal drinking age. Just in time for another season of frat parties and football games, the debate has rolled around again.

In yesterday's Washington Post on the front page is a story titled “Lower Drinking Age Is Criticized.” An excerpt:

On the face of it, the notion seems counterintuitive, but to the presidents of some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges, it makes a lot of sense: Lowering the legal drinking age might get students to drink less. . . .

As parents ship their children off to college this month, university officials are bracing for a round of alcohol-fueled parties and binge drinking. They say they have tried banning keggers and have promoted alcohol counseling, but problems persist. It’s time for a new approach, they say.

In addition to the Dickinson president, academic leaders involved in the effort include those of Duke University and Dartmouth College as well as several Washington area schools, such as the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. Their effort, the Amethyst Initiative, proposes to reopen a national discussion on an issue that hasn’t been seriously debated in three decades.

Amid the backlash, the 115 university leaders in the group said their proposal is being distorted. They said that they are not necessarily advocating that the age be lowered but that the issue needs to be part of the debate because alcohol abuse at colleges has gotten so bad.

The thing is, this issue is more than a numbers game. It’s a cultural situation. I’m not sure—in fact, I really doubt—we can change cultural attitudes among the young from viewing alcohol, not as a part of a recreational sport, but as a beverage, and nothing more. I don’t think “Beer is not a toy” PSAs will be enough.

Binge drinking is a problem. Horrible things have happened—needless deaths—because college kids “played” with alcohol. We—as families, churches, communities—do need to teach kids to view partying as passé, a total waste of their time and potential. There needs to be a collective raised-eyebrow-slash-sneer sort of attitude (“Dude, are you kidding me? Chug 10 shots? Do a beer bong? Whatever. I don’t think so.”) toward drinking-as-recreation.

It’s no secret that alcohol permeates college life. Will Porter, a 21-year-old economics major at U-Md., said that one of the favorite games in his fraternity is for 10 guys to pass around a handle of bourbon until it’s gone. About a month ago, he said, he drank seven shots of whiskey and six glasses of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola at a bar near campus. He doesn’t remember much else.

Now, he said, he’s going through court-ordered alcohol treatment. His second Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is Sunday.

“A lot of people get a real thrill out of the fact it’s illegal—that causes them to drink more,” he said. But he said he’s not sure that changing the drinking age would matter.

“I don’t think it’d change the partying or drinking,” he said. “I just think it would change the number of fake IDs people use.” [emphasis added]

Out of the mouth of . . .

I don’t think lowering the age will help bring about a changed attitude—as the recreational viewpoint of alcohol is so entrenched in the psyche of today's youth. We’re not Europe. We can’t transform ourselves into that sophisticated mindset with a simple law change—as much as columnist Marc Fisher’s anecdotal argument is an appealing hypothetical:

How could making teenage drinking easier possibly help reduce teen drinking? When I was in college three decades ago, 18-year-olds could drink openly and legally and generally did so in public settings, including at cocktail parties with faculty members and at a college-run pub where professors and staffers mixed with students. The result—of course, with plenty of extreme exceptions—was that kids learned moderation. Nobody had to hide, and adults were around considerably more often when students were drinking.

Actually, spelling out the real problem—why kids binge-drink and engage in other destructive behavior—is what really needs to be addressed, not looking for piecemeal responses to the symptoms of a bigger problem. But as far as that 21-age limit goes,

“We want to encourage an honest and constructive dialogue among educators, lawmakers, parents and students,” Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said. “If what we are doing now doesn’t work, then we have an obligation to ourselves, and to society, to explore what might.”

So, put down your wine glass and offer your thoughts on this issue.

(Image © Zillow Blog)

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Benjamen R. Meyer

Lowering the drinking age would probably be a really good thing. Why? A lot of the underage drinking is done out of either peer pressure or rebellion. The peer pressure is a hard one to alleviate, but it can be done _in time_ - it won't happen over night. But the rebellion side of it could really be thwarted by simply making it legal. Of course, there is also another issue - and one the presidents of these colleges and universities are likely thinking more about - by lowering the drinking age you now enable parents to be able to teach their children to drink responsibly before they get to college (suppose the parents can even drink responsibly themselves!); but this creates two things - (i) a whole new support system for teaching kids about drinking, and (ii) it removes that kind of burden on schools, who are then put in the position of having to report them to the authorities if they find out. Honestly, I think we do need to lower the drinking age all the way down to between 5 and 10 years of age; but not do so overnight - in a planned and stepped method (e.g. 21->18->16->14, etc.). I think we'll see a rise in problems at the start (due to kids going out and drinking just because they now can - also another big killer of 21 year olds!), but as time progresses, things will calm and the end result should be a lot lower than things are currently. Yes, you'll still have some kids from homes where parents forbid alcohol going out and doing the same stupid stuff, but there'd be a lot less of them, and in time - they'll have a lot more peers joining in who know how to drink responsibly. Think about it - if you lower the drinking age, then you'll get the kids that behave well out being able to participate as those peers and encourage less drinking too, where as right now - it's just the kids that don't behave well out there, pressuring each other to drink more and more. Any how...some points to ponder.


I actually don't think it's so much the forbiddenness that's the appeal, as is the effect of alcohol: lowering inhibitions, a method of escapism (from pressures of academics; family issues; other stresses), and insecurity of youth (false sense of empowerment when under the influence; the drive to be someone other than yourself). Even if it were legal, the desire to acquire those aspects of being tipsy to drunk, and the peer pressure to drink as much as you can to "prove" something, will still be there. There are larger underlying issues to address in order to get youth to the place where the idea of "using" alcohol becomes unappealing.

Jason Taylor

When the law says someone becomes mature enough for X or Y is necessarily arbittrary simply because people mature at different rates. There are a number of people under 18 who are more fit for the ambiguous priveledges of drinking, going to war, or even marrying then many who are older. Several seventeen year olds would only taste alchohol at a Mass or a wedding and several who are older are shameless drunkards.
Thus whereever the age is placed it will look irrational because it is based on a rough estimation of a large collective then on the estimation of individuals.

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