Alcohol Laws: Should the Drinking Age be Lowered?

As college students usher in the start of a new term with beer pong and keg stands, the nation revisits what's now a fixture of collegiate life: drinking age laws.

An increasing number of college officials are arguing that current drinking laws have failed. Instead of keeping students away from alcohol, they argue, the laws simply drive underage drinking underground and toward unsafe extremes.

Leading the debate for change is John M. McCardell, Jr., president emeritus of Vermont's Middlebury College, who proposes rolling back the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 after granting "drinking licenses" to those who complete an extensive alcohol education program.

McCardell recently founded "Choose Responsibility," a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the drinking age and researching the effects of the current law. He says his proposal will "bring alcohol back out into the open, acknowledge that 18-year-olds are adults in the eyes of the law [as they are] in every other respect, and it will reduce the abusive drinking that has become so widespread in the last 20 years."

McCardell said he was tired of facing what he called "two impossible choices" between policing and ignoring drinking on campus. The drinking age law, he contends, has only increased binge drinking by pushing alcohol use into hiding.

And when students drink, increasingly they're turning to hard liquor.

"The pattern of drinking has changed and gotten worse, that's where I agree with [McCardell]," said Dr. David Anderson, director for Advancement of Public Health at George Mason University and an expert on college alcohol use. While he opposes lowering the drinking age, he said "the pattern has gotten more high risk."

Two recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention find that underage binge drinkers are turning to hard liquor as their main alcohol source, unlike adults who rely more often on beer. Liquors such as vodka are easy to smuggle in water bottles, and make it easier to get drunk.

But some public health researchers say the data do not support McCardell's claim.

"I don't know where he gets his data from, but I like to base mine on facts," said Dr. Henry Wechsler, a researcher at Harvard School of Public Health, and a leading expert on college binge drinking.

Binge drinking has remained level at 44 percent among college students for 10 years, according to Wechsler's most recent study in 2001. He thinks lowering the drinking age would worsen the problem "like pouring gasoline on a fire."

"It seems that [McCardell] has found that there are leaks in the boat, and that the way to cure it is to knock out the bottom of the boat," he said.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving also opposes lowering the drinking age. The says it believes the change would increase the number of young drinkers getting behind the wheels of their vehicles.

"You'd have a significant increase in crashes [if the drinking age were lowered,]" said Laura Dawson, president of the MADD Northern Virginia Chapter.

This July marked 23 years since Congress passed the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age Law with the help of MADD, and Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J, and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. Although states have the right to set their own drinking age, under the current law any state that sets it below 21 forfeits 10 percent of its annual highway appropriations. By 1988, all 50 states had enacted the 21-year-old minimum, with Wyoming being the last to raise the drinking age.

To prove the law's success, supporters like MADD point to what they say is an estimated 23,000 lives that the elevated drinking age saved from drunk driving.

The law supports the organization's mantra that "the sooner youth drink the more likely they are to become alcohol dependent and to drive drunk."

However, McCardell disagrees that the drinking age contributes to safe driving.

"The drinking age has little do with [drunk driving]," said McCardell. If that were the case, he has argued, the better solution would be to raise the driving age to 21.

Although the number of drunk-driving fatalities has decreased with the new law, McCardell says these statistics ignore the effects of improvements in seat-belts, airbags, and public information campaigns against drunk driving, highway construction and regulation laws.

While the drinking age is not the only way to save lives, critics still defend its role.

"The number one way to reduce death in drinking and driving is airbags," said George Mason's Anderson. "[But] the drinking age did make a difference. It's part of the puzzle, and I hate to throw out parts of the puzzle."

However, McCardell also highlights the adverse effects of the current law, such as the disenfranchising of parents in the alcohol coming-of-age and the underground fake I.D. business. Youth are no longer introduced to alcohol in a controlled environment, because many states prohibit parents from providing alcohol to their children at home. Instead, many law-abiding students must first encounter alcohol at college parties.

McCardell proposes lifting the cap for states that lower the drinking age while pursuing pilot alcohol education programs, as long as the states keep drunk driving rates down.

Some young people believe alcohol education classes might encourage responsible drinking among college students.

"It would be giving an indication that they're given a seat at the table," said Zack Yost, a senior at University of Michigan and president of the Michigan Student Assembly. "I think that students might find it empowering."

But public health professionals predict dangerous consequences will accompany lifting the law.

"If you make alcohol available to 18-year-olds, you have to think of the consequences of your actions," Wechsler said. "You're bringing it into high schools."

An industry-wide effort to sell alcohol to younger people would likely follow the change. But most importantly, "we're going to have the same increase in deaths as we had before, about 800 or more," Wechsler said.

Scientists also fear the effect on the brain, which does not complete development until the mid-20s. Others bemoan missing the chance to address the emotional, social, cognitive and physical reasons students drink heavily.

"It's jumping at a simple solution to a complex problem," Anderson said. "It's like a doctor giving a pill to someone with depression."

Implicit in McCardell's plan is a recognition that 18 to 20 year olds will drink, regardless of the law.

"Alcohol remains real in the lives of 18, 19 and 20 year-olds, but it is present not in open but behind closed doors" McCardell said.

Although many students agree that alcohol is intrinsic to campus social life, some dispute the ill effects of allowing their under-21 peers to drink legally.

"I think that [drinking] would increase, but not that much; because no matter what age, we can get alcohol," said Rick Stern, a senior at the University of Maryland who opposes changing the drinking age.

Other students think lowering the drinking age would encourage safer drinking.

"[Students] probably wouldn't be as irresponsible," said Steve Kennedy, a recent graduate from Providence College. "They probably wouldn't feel they have to binge drink when they pre-game."

But students do not seem to be clamoring to claim their drinking privileges at 18, despite McCardell's resurrection of the old argument, "If you're old enough to die for your country, you're old enough to drink." In fact, students seem surprisingly apathetic, if not divided, over lowering the drinking age.

A 2005 ABC News poll, taken on the 21st anniversary of the legal drinking limit found that even among young adults aged 34 and under, 73 percent opposed lowering the drinking age. The public at large seems to agree, with 80 percent of those 35 and up supporting legal age 21.

After all, drinking is not protected by the Constitution.

"There's no inherent right to consume alcohol at 18," Wechsler said. "Young people are prevented from doing other things other than drinking," such as running for a seat in Congress.

He added, "If young people are allowed to die in war, they should also be allowed to die on the road?"