Drinking: 18 vs. 21
Alcohol on campus: debating lowering the drinking age
Part four of a five-part series exploring drinking on campus.
It’s the question that has stuck in the craw of underage college students for decades: I can fight and die for this country, so why can’t I crack a beer?
There are no easy answers. But resentment among 18-to-20-year-olds simmers.
For much of the 20th century, the legal drinking age in the United States had a bumpy ride. After Prohibition ended in 1933, you had to be 21 to sidle up to a bar. During the height of the Vietnam War, 18 was your ticket to a six-pack. But by the late ’70s, the minimum drinking age was all over the map, literally, with various states having tacked on an extra year or two.
Women turn out in large numbers for the anti-Prohibition parade and demonstration in Newark, N.J., October 28, 1932. More than 20,000 people took part in the mass demand for the repeal of the 18th Amendment. AP Photo
Finally, in 1984, the federal government, backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), ordered all 50 states to raise their legal drinking age to 21 years old or suffer a 10 percent cut in their annual federal highway dollars. By 1987, every governor had complied. According to MADD, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDAA) has saved some 17,000 lives on the highways since 1988.
But some people feel MADD has gone too far. Over the past two decades, several efforts have bubbled up to bring the drinking age back down to 18. The issue caught fire in 2004, when former Middlebury College president John McCardell, alarmed at the intensity of underage drinking, particularly on college campuses, wrote a New York Times op-ed that called the current drinking age “bad social policy and a terrible law.”
“It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority,” wrote McCardell, now a history professor at Middlebury. “Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking.”
In 2007, McCardell founded Choose Responsibility (CR), a nonprofit group devoted to spreading awareness of the dangers of excessive and reckless alcohol consumption by young adults. CR’s main goal is to lower the drinking age to 18, combined with better education about alcohol use. McCardell has been joined by Barrett Seaman, a veteran Time magazine correspondent and editor and the author of Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess (Wiley, 2005). They argue that the current law has driven underage boozing underground and into dangerous territory. According to the Annual Review of Public Health, as referenced on CR’s website, alcohol annually contributes to some 1,700 deaths, 599,000 injuries, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault among college students.
Photo by Lil’ El
Attaching available numbers to real progress is a tricky business. MADD claims the higher drinking age is responsible for a decline in annual alcohol-related deaths, from 26,173 in 1982 to 16,885 in 2005, as counted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with alcohol-related fatalities dropping more than highway deaths where booze was not a factor. Opponents point out that the NHTSA’s definition of “alcohol-related deaths” includes all fatalities involving any measurable amount of alcohol in any person involved, including pedestrians. They also note that highway design, vehicle safety, and seat-belt use have markedly improved since the 1980s. Pro-21ers counter with a 2002 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota who reviewed more than 150 studies since NMDAA was enacted that consistently show benefit to the law, as well as popular support. They also note that the age for handgun purchase is 21 as well, and to rent a car is 25.
In 2008, Choose Responsibility launched the Amethyst Initiative, a movement of university and college presidents calling for a reconsideration of the law. Boston University President Robert A. Brown is not among them.
“The Amethyst Initiative proposes that by lowering the drinking age, colleges will be better able to generate awareness of the risk of excessive alcohol use,” Brown says. “I am not convinced this is true, and I worry about the consequences of lowering the age on the large number of teenagers not in college, as well as the environment for students in high school who would experience increased exposure to alcohol.”
BU Today spoke with Seaman, the current president of Choose Responsibility, and William DeJong, a School of Public Health professor of community health sciences and an expert on alcohol education, who has debated members of Choose Responsibility in the past, to discuss the pros and cons of lowering the legal drinking age in America.
BU Today: What led you to decide that Age 21 was the right or wrong direction for this country?
Seaman: When I began researching binge drinking on American college campuses—Harvard, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Hamilton, UVA, Duke, Indiana, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Stanford, Pomona—I was struck by the unanimity of the culture on these campuses that seems to revolve around heavy, dangerous, determinative drinking, where people set out to get drunk and the whole notion of pregaming and doing shots in the dorm room. The sort of clandestine behavior I just didn’t remember from my days in college, which were definitely a long time ago. But back in the ’60s, when the drinking age in New York, where I went to school, was 18, we didn’t feel a need to do that stuff because it was legal.
Another part of my eureka moment was when I visited McGill University. As you know, McGill is in Montreal, where the drinking age is 18, but they also have, in any given year, 2,000 Americans enrolled as undergraduates. I wanted to see how the Americans there behaved as compared to their compatriots in American schools. And I was really struck by the relative civility I found up at McGill. It just wasn’t a big deal. They could go down to the bars in Montreal and drink or go to the clubs or they could have a case of beer delivered to their dorm rooms. It was an open culture.
The other piece that really struck me was that at McGill the students and faculty and other adults intermingled around alcohol, whereas in American universities and colleges, there was a total separation of adults from young people. I think the lack of somebody around to demonstrate moderate drinking, to just having a professor or parent or somebody around who could say, “I think three beers is enough. You’re beginning to act like a jerk.” That sort of moderating behavior is totally absent. So here’s a whole generation of young people learning to drink from themselves, instead of from people who’ve had some experience with it. That struck me as a really perverse culture and the wrong way to go about it. So I came away from that convinced that 21 was not solving the problem. It was part of the problem.
DeJong: Raising the drinking age to 21 was a choice that was dictated by the research evidence that was coming out of the experiments in the 1970s and early ’80s, when a lot of states switched from having a drinking age of 21 to a lower age, sometimes as low as 18. Researchers took a look at what was going on in those states compared to similar states that had not made the change, and it was very clear that changing the law was resulting in a higher number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Based on that evidence, MADD began to push for a uniform age 21 law. Researchers then began looking at the impact in those states that had switched to 21 as they came online, and you could immediately see the benefits in reduced traffic fatalities.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs legislation on July 17, 1984, raising the national drinking age to 21 as MADD founder Candy Lightner looks on. AP photo
What Choose Responsibility is not accounting for is that if you look at the number of highway fatalities by age of the driver, you see a decrease for people between 21 and 30 and there’s a much sharper decrease for those under 21 on a percentage basis. Everything they’re saying about drinking rates, seat-belt use, and better car design has been taken into account. So they’re left without an explanation for why that decrease was sharper for those under the age of 21. The only explanation that most traffic safety people point to is the Age 21 law itself. New Zealand recently switched from age 20 to 18. As soon as they made that change, not only did they have more traffic fatalities among 18- and 19-year-olds, but among 15- and 16-year-olds.
Does the Age 21 law infantilize young adults who can vote, serve on juries, and die for this country in battle?
Seaman: I sent three daughters through college in the 1990s. I’ve been a trustee at Hamilton College, my alma mater, for 21 years. And through that particular vantage point, going up to campus four times a year, meeting with students, and seeing the enormous growth of the student affairs staffing on college campuses, it struck me as being somewhat infantilizing. The rules and the nanny mentality that existed was not helpful. It was not what I remembered from my experience in college. I became curious about what had changed and decided to take a look at the total culture of college campuses. The drinking is the piece that jumped out. But that’s the one where I said to myself, “There is a policy change that could affect this.”
I think the main problem is the separation of adults from young people precisely at the time of their lives where they’re going to be drinking anyway. It’s bringing to bear enormous amounts of resources—police enforcement, rules on college campuses, all these RAs and staffers who spend an awful lot of time worrying about whether people are drinking, how much they’re drinking, and what they’re doing as a result of drinking. I look to Canada and to the rest of the world and I see that people can drink at a younger age and be civilized about it. One of the things I did when I was researching Binge is I sought out international students, and I would ask them what their impression was. It was remarkably uniform. They’d say, “This is the kind of stuff we did in high school. Gee, these people are silly, they spend so much time thinking about alcohol.” They found it all pretty sophomoric.
Dejong: When the drinking age was lowered, we did not get less infantile behavior; we actually got more. It’s kind of a basic axiom that if you make alcohol more readily accessible, people will drink more and a certain percentage of them will drink to excess in a greater percentage. There’s just all kinds of data showing that. You increase taxes and consumption goes down and the negative consequences from drinking go down. You make alcohol available on Sundays and people buy more, drink more, and the negative consequences go up.
There’s a whole literature showing that whatever policy is in place that makes alcohol more accessible, the more problems you have. One of the things we know is that parents who allow their kids to drink at home actually stimulate the kids to drink more overall than parents who don’t encourage their kids to drink at home. Those kids drink higher amounts and more frequently. They experience more negative alcohol-related consequences. Rather than the kids getting the message that there’s a way to drink responsibly, they take away the message that Mom and Dad don’t care if I drink, so when they’re out in social setting, they’re more inclined to drink more. Again, I don’t see any evidence that we get more extreme drinking because of the Age 21 law. Show me data, not anecdotes. We can find anecdotes for both sides of the argument.
Watch student reactions in the video above.
Does Age 21 breed disrespect for authority?
Seaman: The disrespect to the law is fake IDs, the widespread purchase and consumption of alcohol by people who know it’s illegal, and the supplying of younger people by older or upperclassmen in college who think nothing of going out and buying alcohol and then making sure that everybody in their fraternity or sorority has access to it.
Some of what I saw on these college campuses included fraternities where they had built elaborate systems, wild stuff right out of Prohibition, where the bar suddenly turns around and becomes a library. They had shut-down drills, where at the first sign of campus police or somebody coming to inspect on a Saturday night, they’d blow the whistle and every brother in the place knew exactly what to do and how to clean the place up. In two minutes, they had a raging party turn into what looked like an ice cream parlor. That’s the kind of climate this law seems to have engendered. That’s what you’ve got to break.
Dejong: Disrespect for authority can happen with the enforcement of any law that people are not uniformly behind. There is something to the argument that Age 21 creates disrespect for the law, but I could say the same thing about speed limits. We violate speed limits all the time. It really seems arbitrary and unfair when we’re the ones who get pulled over when everyone else is speeding. So what—do we raise the speed limit, get rid of speed limits because they’re creating disrespect for the law? I don’t think widespread disobedience is a reason for changing a law. I’m convinced by the evidence, even though the Age 21 law has been imperfectly enforced and even though a lot of people violate it, that it has had a dampening effect and has reduced negative alcohol-related problems. To some degree people are keeping themselves in check because of the Age 21 law and don’t want to get caught.
And the fact is, if you look at the polling data over the years for the Age 21 law, there is overwhelming public support for it. There may not be overwhelming support for it among people who are 18 to 20, but U.S. adults, overall, support it. One glimpse I’ve had into this is through the online alcohol education course that is taken by about one third of all freshmen in the country. We ask their opinion of the Age 21 law. A bare majority of students are in favor of the current law or aren’t sure what the law should be. It’s a minority that are absolutely certain that the law should be changed.
The Amethyst Initiative, signed by almost 140 college presidents, seems to suggest that educational leaders see Age 18 as a viable solution.
Seaman: We launched the Amethyst Initiative, which 138 college and university presidents have signed, calling for an objective and dispassionate debate over a better system; 21 is not solving the problem. So let’s talk about some things that might work.
I deal with a lot of student affairs people and deans of students, and I think what the smart ones are doing is focusing on the bad behaviors that result from the misuse of alcohol, rather than the mere consumption of alcohol. Don’t bust kids for walking around campus with an open container of beer, certainly not students who are sitting in their room, watching a football game on television with a six-pack in front of them. They’re not doing anybody any harm. But do crack down on the people who bust up windows in the student center or some other form of vandalism. Do crack down on the people who get involved in date rapes. And certainly there ought to be no tolerance of drinking and driving by people under 21, as there shouldn’t be for people over 21. If they can concentrate on that and not worry about who’s consuming alcohol in a relatively civilized or moderate way, I think they would have more success.
DeJong: A lot of the presidents who signed up were not necessarily in favor of changing the law, but wanted to encourage an open discussion and review of it. Keep in mind that it’s a very small number of presidents. Some of them have signed and gotten hell for it from their own staffs, who have to now try and deal with the issue. Some presidents had to be taught what the research issues were, and then withdrew their support. I also think a lot of the interest among the college presidents came about from a sense of fatalism—that there was nothing that works so we should try this. But there’s a lot that works. There’s 20 years of research pointing the way toward effective prevention. There was an initial wave of pro-18 publicity two years ago, but we really don’t hear much about it anymore. There’s no political will to change the law. The states are up against a federal law that incentivizes the current law. It would cost states an enormous amount of money and provoke vociferous opposition from a variety of groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Mr. Seaman, two final questions for you: won’t lowering the drinking age result in the problems trickling down to a younger, more vulnerable age group?
Seaman: That is a tough argument. I understand. Because we still have a fair number of 18-year-olds who are in high school and the prospect of them being able to supply the 17-, 16-, 15-year-olds with alcohol is a daunting one. My response is that if you take 18 as a clear, bright line that separates adults from nonadults, which the law does in every other respect, I think you could enforce it more credibly and have more buy-in from the people themselves. But right now we have a law that nobody respects. So why should a 17-year-old feel that he or she shouldn’t have access to a handle of vodka when the 19- or 20-year-olds are illegal and they’re getting it too? It’s the same sort of mentality we had during Prohibition. For all age groups, there was a total disrespect for the law that was engendered by the failure of Prohibition. It just had no popular support. The answer I would give is you have to have an educational component as part of any change in the law.
Do you see any positives to the drinking age being 21?
Seaman: I think at the beginning it seemed to have—if not the law itself, at least the debate surrounding it—an impact on drunk driving. That impact was a 13 percent decline over a six- or seven-year period. Then it sort of settled out about 1990 and really hasn’t improved since. Age 21 was a broad-brush social policy used to fight the specific problem of drunk driving. And really, underage drinking and drunk driving are two very different things. They overlap, but they’re different. You look at the statistics and the last time I checked, just under 90 percent of drunk driving fatalities in this country were caused by people over 21. So this isn’t an age-specific thing. And we strongly advocate even stronger drunk driving laws than we already have.
Photo by Ian Sutherland
Professor DeJong, clearly binge drinking is a problem on college campuses under the current law. What more can be done to educate students?
Dejong: I’m working with a company called Outside the Classroom. They have a course called AlcoholEdu, which is taken by about one third of all college freshmen. It’s a course that certainly reminds people of the Age 21 law, but recognizes that people are going to make their own choices about drinking. It offers a lot of information to those who choose to drink that will help them decide to drink less. We do have evidence from randomized control trials that it’s effective in reducing alcohol consumption compared with students who don’t take the course.
And beyond education?
Dejong: There’s a whole package of things. Beyond education programs, there has to be a supportive environment. You have to have very clear policies that are firmly, consistently, and strictly enforced. Part of the package has to be parental notification. Part of it is improving enforcement in nearby communities. Off-campus parties are a big problem. So cooperative enforcement between campus and local police can do a lot; holding landlords accountable through zoning restrictions or municipal codes, and holding landlords responsible for their tenants; working with local taverns, bars, liquor stores to reduce sales to intoxicated patrons.
“Social norms marketing” is another important component. One of the main drivers of this heavy drinking is the common misperception that everybody drinks heavily. Students have grossly exaggerated views of how much drinking is going on. Through a campus media campaign, you can inform students of how much drinking is really taking place and correct that misperception. There’s evidence that that reduces how much students drink.
Next up: “Rules, Realities, and the Holy Grail.”
Getting Help: Information about alcohol abuse treatment and support at Student Health Services can be found here. Learn more about alcohol and your health here. Resources and information about reporting sexual assault can be found here.
AlcoholScreening.org, a tool for confidentially assessing drinking and finding help, was developed by researchers at the BU School of Public Health.42 Comments