Imagine this: You are a college freshman starting Fordham University’s New Student Orientation program, and instead of being told that drinking alcohol is a serious offense on campus, you are greeted with a social gathering on Eddie’s for new students where alcohol is served. You drink and converse and introduce yourself to your new peers and professors alike. You are in a controlled environment where you can freely and safely have a drink and socialize with members of the Fordham community.
Of course, in 2013, no freshman orientation experience is quite like the one described above, but this was actually the exact case here at Fordham in the early 1980s. It is also the norm at colleges and universities across the globe, such as McGill University in Canada, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, or the University of Cambridge in England. So, what has changed? Why is this situation foreign to us? With a minimum drinking age of 21 years old, college freshman in the United States are instead exposed to a world of dangerous underage alcohol consumption that is too often ignored by university administration. Unaware of how to drink responsibly, these young students are fully immersed in the culture of college life, where binge drinking and alcohol poisoning are everyday concerns. With so many underage students consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol, the current drinking age legislation must be failing.
Students like myself are not the only ones concerned about the current drinking age legislation. John McCardell, president emeritus of Vermont’s Middlebury College, has spearheaded an operation to get the issue of the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 noticed by Congress. Founded in 2008, the Amethyst Initiative is a group of 136 college presidents and chancellors from around the country that want to initiate a national conversation on the current state of the drinking age. These academic leaders have signed the Initiative’s official statement that proposes the failure of the current drinking age, and the proliferation of binge drinking and other irresponsible behaviors as a result. Presidents from schools such as Duke University, Dartmouth College, Holy Cross College, Occidental University, and many others have all signed the statement. The leaders of these academic institutions believe the drinking age of 21 is simply not working, as proven by the culture of binge drinking surrounding college life in general.
As presidents of colleges and universities, the Amethyst Initiative is concerned especially with the immense amount of alcohol consumption found on college campuses across the nation. Binge drinking, or consuming an excess amount of drinks in a short period of time, has become the cultural perception of drinking alcohol in college because students are not exposed to responsible drinking at an earlier age. The fact that drinking is illegal for most college students drives alcohol consumption away from the controlled environments of bars and restaurants and into “the most risky and least manageable settings,” said President McCardell during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes. McCardell continued to state that drinking now occurs outside of well-monitored spaces and instead in campus dormitories and off-campus housing where there is no proper supervision.
The history of the current drinking age legislation is deeply political and finds its roots in the early 1980s, when traffic fatality rates (TFRs) became a concern of many American people, especially mothers of teenage drivers. After a drunk driver killed her teenage daughter in 1980, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, in her California den (Hanson). By 1984, MADD became a powerful lobbying group that contained over 300,000 members in 44 different states. The organization lobbied Congress as hard as they could until their issue—teenage drinking—became a national concern. U.S. Senators learned that it would be political suicide for them to repudiate parents of teenagers in alcohol related accidents, and thus the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was born. The bill required “all States to raise their minimum drinking age to 21 within two years or lose a portion of their Federal-aid highway funds; and encourage States, through incentive grants programs, to pass mandatory sentencing laws to combat drunk driving” (Thomas Senate Record Vote Analysis). This portion of a state’s federal aid for highway funds amounted to ten percent of all allocated highway grants.
President Ronald Reagan questioned the constitutionality of such a bill that allowed the federal government to essentially blackmail the states into enforcing a law. President Reagan threatened to veto the bill stating that it was an infringement on states’ rights; however, Reagan, like Congress, recognized the immense influence MADD’s lobbying efforts had on the national debate and he formally announced his support of the bill on June 13, 1984. Since the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, the federal government has been able to coerce the states into applying laws without actually forcing mandatory legislation upon them.
The most common argument brought up by the lobbying powerhouse MADD and other proponents of the 21 MLDA is that the traffic fatality rates have decreased since the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. In response to this, President McCardell of the Amethyst Initiative brings up the reality of off-highway deaths due to excessive alcohol consumption. Today, the number of off-highway alcohol related deaths is increasing at an alarming rate because of the culture of binge drinking the 21 minimum legal drinking age has created. The fact that the number of highway fatalities has decreased may also not be the most reliable defense for the current MLDA, because the numbers had already been decreasing before 1984 (Palicz). Traffic fatality rates may have continued to decrease after the passing of the 1984 legislation because of improvements in vehicle safety and advancements in medicine and emergency response (Palicz).
The inevitability of underage drinking must be recognized in this country. We should not be focusing on getting young people to stop drinking; instead, we should be talking about ways to educate young people on how to drink responsibly. The Amethyst Initiative acknowledges that underage drinking takes place, and until this problem is dealt with, other universities need to engage in this conversation. Colleges and universities should openly acknowledge this issue and administer alcohol education themselves. For example, upperclassmen could moderate peer discussion groups on their personal experiences with alcohol with underage students. Underclassmen do not want to be told by administration that drinking is illegal and prohibited on campus, nor will this rhetoric prevent underage drinking. Peer-to-peer discussions provide a way for universities to acknowledge underage drinking and educate new students in a manner to which students can relate.
Beyond changing the culture surrounding underage drinking on college campuses, we should be thinking broadly about how to address this problem on a national scale. One possibility may be a specific “license to drink” that one must obtain after completing a certain amount of alcohol education classes, similar to what we do now in order to obtain a driver’s license. This will allow 17 and 18 year-olds to learn the dangers of binge drinking and to understand how to drink responsibly before being allowed to purchase and consume alcohol. Another suggestion may be a maximum decriminalized blood-alcohol content level for persons under 21, similar to the decriminalization of marijuana in some states. With this type of legislation, 18, 19, and 20 year-olds can consume a controlled amount of alcohol (e.g. 0.08 BAC) without suffering legal repercussions. It is crucial to consider legislative options such as these to combat the current cultural perception of underage drinking and to promote safe, responsible consumption of alcohol.
On my 18th birthday, I could not help but think about how I was now considered an adult in the eyes of the law. As I looked at the extensive list of things I could now legally do at this milestone of an age, it seemed simply inane to me that I could still not consume alcohol. My country can put me on the front lines of war, but I cannot have a beer, nor can I drink a glass of champagne at my wedding. While reformation of the current drinking age laws may not be agreed upon, what must be noticed is the failure of the current legislation. The minimum legal drinking age of 21 has not thwarted underage drinking, but instead has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking. The current MLDA has not prevented alcohol related deaths for teens but has instead moved these fatalities from the road to homes and university campuses around the country. A nation that considers 18 year-olds legal adults by law but does not find them trustworthy enough to consume alcohol needs to think responsibly and reconsider their drinking age laws.
Hanson, David J., Ph.D. “Candy Lightner: Founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).” Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
Keen, Judy. “States Weigh Lowering Drinking Age.” USA Today. Gannett. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
Palicz, K. “Legislative Analysis of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.” National Youth Rights Association. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
Unknown. “Rethink the Drinking Age.” The Amethyst Initiative. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
Unknown. “Thoughts on Drinking Age.” My Record Journal. 24 Aug. 2008. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.