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Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Drink

We should empower young adults to make responsible choices, not choose for them.

by
Michele Catalano

Bio

August 26, 2008 - 12:22 am

One hundred college professors pushed a very hot button last week when they announced they signed a letter stating that they were pushing to lower the national drinking age from 21 to 18. The professors hail from mostly distinguished colleges — including Dartmouth and Duke — and are part of Amethyst Initiative — an offshoot of the nonprofit organization Choose Responsibly, which was started by former Middlebury College President John McCardell.

After the announcement, the media was flooded with editorials, letters to the editor, responses from other organizations, and, of course, rebuttals to the proposal. The drinking age has suddenly become the hottest issue in the press besides the election. There are valid points to be made for both sides of the argument.

In 1984, when the drinking age was raised in the United States, Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This law basically held states hostage by saying 10% of their federal highway funds would be taken away if they did not enforce a legal drinking age of 21. There has been controversy ever since. The most basic argument against the raised drinking age — and for lowering it –is the most opined: If we can marry, drive, and go to war at 18, why can’t we legally drink?

Our government trusts an 18-year-old to defend our country against its enemies, but does not trust us to consume alcohol at the same age? Another argument for lowering the age is the one the college presidents are using as the backbone of their initiative: a raised drinking age causes binge drinking. As McCardell wrote in a 2004 New York Times editorial:

The 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. … Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.

Perhaps he has a point. When I was in college and the drinking age was 18, there was a pub on campus where students would gather and drink and listen to live music. When I went back to college later on and the drinking age was 21, drinking had become a surreptitious thing; students were hoarding alcohol and drinking as much as they could in as short period of time as possible in order to get drunk before getting caught. That’s not to say students weren’t binge drinking before the age change; just that they are doing it more often.

Maybe that’s not as much the fault of the drinking age laws as it is our views on alcohol in this country. Take a look at this chart showing the alcohol policies of other countries. Very few countries have similar age constraints. Americans tend to take a prohibitionist view on drinking. We preach alcohol abstinence, lecture about the evils of liquor, and let groups like MADD and D.A.R.E. indoctrinate our children into thinking that any alcohol at all is bad.

Instead of teaching our kids how to drink responsibly, we are turning drinking into some kind of forbidden fruit for them. So at the first sign of freedom, like going away to college, these 18-year-olds who were never taught how to handle alcohol, only to avoid it, are drinking like they found some kind of magic potion. As stated by the Nation Youth Rights Association statement on the drinking age:

At the very least, American youth alcohol policy is ineffective. More disturbing, the drinking age may be counterproductive. It is applied so rigidly in most of the country that it precludes any attempt to teach young people how to handle alcohol responsibly.

Indeed, that is the basis of the Amethyst Initiative statement:

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”– often conducted off-campus-has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

Now, some will argue that the college presidents proposing to change the law are acting deceptively. No, they do not have your children’s best interest at heart. They just want to take the onus off of themselves. If the drinking age is 18, the colleges can’t be held responsible — to an extent — when a 19 year old binge drinker dies on campus. After all, he was drinking in accordance with the law. It’s a debatable argument, as it can’t be proved, but it does line up with what MADD thinks about the initiative. Said Caroline Cash, executive director of MADD for Maryland and Delaware:

It gives me great pause to think of sending thousands of students onto a campus where the person who is most accountable doesn’t seem to be devoted to ensuring their health and safety.

The underlying statement here being that MADD wants to take the responsibility away from the student and put it solely on the government and the colleges. In other words, let Congress make laws and let the colleges uphold those laws so our children don’t drink while they are away from home. But that legislates instead of teaching. It does not give an 18-year-old — an adult in every other sense of the word — a choice. It does nothing about educating them on the responsibilities of drinking maturely. It is, again, a prohibitionist view.

We need to empower young adults to make responsible choices, not make those choices for them. Even-handed as I believe myself to be on this issue, perhaps I am more opinionated than I previously thought. Some of my earlier PJM articles touched on teen drinking, and I was called out for having a prurient attitude about alcohol. That’s not entirely true. While I would prefer that my kids (15 and 18) didn’t drink, I’m not naïve enough to think they won’t. So I don’t preach alcohol abstinence to them, though I do try to make them understand that you can have a good time without alcohol.

I have had talks with my daughter about drinking responsibly. I don’t want them to think that just because we (the adults in the house) do not drink, that we are fully against it. We don’t want to give them that prohibitionist attitude, one which will make alcohol the proverbial forbidden fruit for them. My parents did the same for me, and, as a teenager (granted, when the drinking age was 18), I knew about the dangers of alcohol. But I also knew that I could drink without the need to get drunk. There’s a difference, and kids should be taught that difference, instead of being told that alcohol is taboo, making them run for it as soon as the parents’ backs are turned. Perhaps we should take a page from Europeans on this:

Might it not make more sense for adults to model responsible beverage consumption while young people are still home? Perhaps offering a small glass of wine at the family table, in one’s private home, to one’s own children (not the neighbor kids or the teen’s friends) would demystify the whole subject and teach young people that in moderation, a glass of wine (or beer or spirits) enhances a meal. Perhaps that’s just too European for our American sensibilities.

MADD will point to a recent study and have you believe that traffic fatalities have been lower since the drinking age was raised to 21. What they don’t tell you is that the results must take into account factors besides alcohol:

The study, led by James C. Fell, M.S., of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), accounted for a variety of factors, such as improved safety features in cars, better roadways and tougher adult drunk driving laws, that are supposed to have contributed to a reduction in fatalities involving underage drivers who have consumed alcohol. Fell’s research controlled for more variables than any other previous study on the topic, accounting for regional and economic differences, improvements in roadways and vehicles, and changes that lowered the illegal blood alcohol content for driving to .08.

There are deceptions on both sides of this issue. Do the college presidents really have the students’ best interests at heart or those of their institutions? Do MADD and other alcohol opponents really want safer drinking or are they just prohibitionists who preach against alcohol in its entirety? Either way, the time is right to discuss this topic once again.

I’m glad the Amethyst Initiative has brought the issue of the drinking age to the forefront again. If it opens up a discussion on alcohol amongst parents and college-bound students, that’s a good thing , and something, I fear, that the drinking age of 21 often keeps parents from doing. After all, they figure, the law is doing the job for them.

Michele Catalano lives, writes, and takes photographs on Long Island.
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