Will Lowering the Drinking Age Stop Teen Deaths from Alcohol?

By Hillel Aron 05/06/11

Boozing by college kids is a deadly problem. A group of 135 U.S. college presidents believes that lowering the drinking age may be the solution.

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For most Americans, college seems like a modern-day, less fabulous version of prohibition. At most university dorms, alcohol is so ubiquitous that students would only refer to it as illegal in the service of a punch line. And while most college students imbibe gallons of liquor a month, adults tend to look the other way. And why shouldn’t they? The vast majority of college kids, after all, are over 18—old enough to vote, old enough to buy a gun, and old enough to join the army, invade Iraq, and be haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their life. Aren’t they entitled to a few cans of Michelob Light?

John McCardell thinks so. McCardell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, is the driving force behind a new measure to reduce the nation’s drinking age from 21 to 18. A former president of Middlebury College, McCardell recently authored a bill called The Amethyst Initiative, a controversial measure endorsed by 135 college presidents across the country. (Why "Amethyst"? It comes from the ancient Greek for "not intoxicated"—these are liberal-arts mavens, after all.) At a time when most observers are arguing against teenaged drinking, McCardell and his allies are fighting to repeal the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, citing health concerns. While McCardell agrees that raising the drinking age has made it more difficult for students to buy alcohol, he argues that the prohibition has forced youngsters to do their drinking indoors. "Fewer people are drinking, but more people are binging,” he says. “And a lot more kids are dying in the process.”

In the 50 years following the end of prohibition, states were allowed to impose their own minimum drinking age. In Southern states like Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, it tended to be 18, while Western states like California, New Mexico, and Oregon made it 21. Then, on May 3, 1980, a 13-year-old girl named Cari Lightner was hit by a drunk driver on her way to a carnival near her home in Fair Oaks, California. A few months later, her grief-stricken mother Candy started a grassroots organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The group, which was first headquartered in Cari’s bedroom, garnered instant attention in the media and on Capitol Hill. MADD was an idea (and acronym) whose time had come. By 1982, there were 100 MADD chapters around the country and President Ronald Reagan announced a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, which made a number of recommendations for education, law enforcement, and new legislation.

Two years later, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which mandated that states must have a minimum drinking age of 21 or lose 10% of federal highway apportionment money. Since the 10th Amendment bars the federal government from imposing laws that are not provided in the Constitution, the highway money was used as a sort of hostage in the bill (which passed with broad bipartisan support). Faced with the loss of millions in federal dollars, even the most recalcitrant states fell into line.

Today, as a result of tougher drunk-driving laws, the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States is about half what it was in 1982. According to at least one study, underage drinking has dropped precipitously as well. On the other hand, binge drinking—usually defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting—has been on the rise since the late '90s, and is most common among college students. 

The statistics are harrowing. It is estimated that binge drinking is responsible for 80,000 deaths a year in the United States, many a result of acute alcohol poisoning. One USA Today article from 2004 began: “Five underclassmen in four states appear to have drunk themselves to death, police say, after friends sent their pals to bed assuming that they would ‘sleep it off.’”

“It’s not 1984 anymore,” says McCardell, who claims that 60% of lives lost to alcohol by people under 21 are lost “off the highway.” McCardell says the reason for the rising death toll is that college drinking is done behind closed doors, in “clandestine environments like frat parties and dorm rooms”—as opposed to in bars and other supervised locales. He claims that this lack of oversight encourages students to develop a different set of social norms; in other words, if they’re surrounded by heavy drinking, they start to think that heavy drinking is normal.

There’s also an economic incentive to drink heavily; college parties often follow the all-you-can-drink model where you pay a cover charge and drink all the keg beer you can. At a bar, on the other hand, you pay for every drink you consume.

Why not allow states to lower the drinking age, says McCardell, and see if that makes a difference? Here's why: a recent study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs argues that this would be disastrous. The study examined data from 32 colleges and constructed a mathematical model of college drinking. Dr. Richard Scribner, one of the seven doctors who put the study together, says that the results suggest that lowering the drinking age would not have a significant effect on binge drinking. “You might correct the misperception of social norms by letting them into bars,” he says, referring to what he sees as the Amethyst Initiative’s goal. “But you also increase the availability of alcohol by letting them into bars.”

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Hillel Aron is a writer living in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. His work has appeared in the LA Weekly, The Huffington Post, and neontommy.com. You can find Hilel on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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