Open the newspaper or turn on your local news and you’re probably going to hear a story about a drunk driving accident, alcohol related assault or alcohol poisoning. This story will most likely involve an individual between the ages of 18 and 24. If you were to continue to explore this issue you would find that among 18 to 24 year olds the rates of binge drinking and DWI’s have been increasing since 1998. Each year there are over 696,000 alcohol related assaults, 97,000 alcohol related sexual assaults and 1700 alcohol related deaths, just among the student population of the United States (Hingson 2000). In a survey, over 19% of college students met the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence (American 2000). All these statistics beg the question of why our current alcohol consumption laws are failing. Unfortunately, this is where our politicians step in and speak of the “changing values of our youth”, “corruption by the media” and scapegoat every other social factor possible, while ignoring the fact that it is our drinking laws that are at the root of this epidemic.
Most people would be surprised to learn that the 21 year age limit is a relatively new law in the United States. Until 1979, it was legal in many states, including New York, for a person to consume alcohol at the age of 18. It wasn’t until the Congressional Act of 1984 where Federal Highway funds were withheld from states with a lower drinking age that we saw a national shift up to the 21 drinking age (Barbanel 1984). Unfortunately, while this was undoubtedly pursued with good intentions, as is often the case, the long term ramifications of this congressional bill may have done more harm than good.
Every person can look back on their college experience and remember a time when they tried something new and exciting. This is the whole point of college; to mature socially as well as academically. For many college students, this exploration involves the consumption of alcohol. However, due to the nation’s current fixation on litigation, we see colleges fear being held liable for alcohol poisoning incidents on their campuses. We see underage students scared about the consequences of getting caught consuming alcohol and the resultant stains upon their academic or legal record. With this fear, the consumption of alcohol has moved from social drinking at a local pub or restaurant to binge drinking behind the locked doors of a dorm room. It’s important to understand that these underage students binge drink not because there is an excess in the availability of alcohol but because there is a scarcity. Unsure of whether they will be able to order a drink at their next social event, students turn to “pre-gaming,” where they consume excessive amounts of alcohol before going out to sustain a buzz throughout the night. This binge drinking overloads the students’ systems and is far more dangerous than if the students had consumed the same quantity of alcohol over the course of a few hours or an entire evening.
In 1919, when Congress prohibited the manufacture, sale, or purchase of alcohol there was an increase in the consumption of alcohol, a decrease in tax revenue and an increase in illicit mob activity in most cities around the country (Miron 1999). The decision proved so ineffective and detrimental to society that it was repealed in a constitutional amendment only 14 years later. The reason behind the failure of prohibition is simple; individuals must be able to replace one leisure activity with another. With complete prohibition, the infeasibility of enforcement and lack of substitutes doomed the bill from the start.
The situation is analogous to the 21 year old drinking age. Colleges cannot effectively enforce a drinking law that splits their student population into two sectors, those above 21 and those below 21, when when both of these age groups share not only a campus but interact regularly and develop close relationships over time. These circumstances give students under 21 a myriad of ways to circumvent the law through their connections with older students, whether it is to buy liquor from them, borrow their ID’s or buy fake ID’s themselves. Instead, colleges should focus on helping students switch from binge drinking to responsible drinking by reducing the penalties for responsible drinking. However, this is currently impossible since universities cannot condone an illegal action. Bound by the 21 drinking age, universities are forced to condemn all underage drinking and preach responsible overage alcohol consumption to disinterested freshmen. University presidents must walk an extremely fine line between creating safety mechanisms for binge drinking and being seen as accepting contained underage drinking.
In order to understand why continuing to enforce the 21 drinking age is a losing battle, it is important to put the student’s situation and mindset in proper perspective. College is an extremely stressful time in a student’s life. Compared to high school, college students face a much more intense academic course load with their performance clearly impacting their future. College students are also in a new social environment; apart from their old friends and facing the pressure to fit in and develop a new social base. They are relatively unsupervised compared to their previous home environment. There are no parents checking to see if your homework is done, no prepared meals, cleaned rooms, or monthly allowance. While facing all these pressures, students are then introduced to the previously prohibited recreational activity of drinking. This situation is akin to moving an untrained dog from the kennel to your living room while on vacation with only the maid to keep watch. Is it really any surprise that we see irresponsible conduct?
Given these issues, we should be focusing on factors that can limit the excessive consumption of alcohol. Peer and family influences have been scientifically proven to affect young adults’ consumption of alcohol. Peer influence can be direct through offers of drinks by fellow students or indirect through acceptance of binge drinking because everyone participates (Jackson 1999). Without exposure to responsible social drinking prior to turning 21, there seems to be a sort of “Animal House” expectation of alcohol consumption in college. Mainly that the only enjoyable way to consume alcohol at college is to drink until you either “blackout” (lose memory of the night’s events) or become unconscious. A second factor influencing the consumption of alcohol is the influence of a teenager’s family. Young people model their consumption of alcohol on their parents’ patterns of consumption. This imitation extends to the quantity, frequency, attitudes and expectancies of drinking (White 2000). However, under current state laws, young adults cannot legally experience responsible drinking at a local restaurant or social function with their parents. Instead of reinforcing positive drinking habits, young adults are told that they have to wait to consume alcohol until college, where they are unsupervised and inexperienced.
Studies of other countries and regions with lower drinking ages have provided information on the type of culture that can be cultivated with proper instruction on drinking responsibly. In Canada the drinking age is 19, yet their student binge drinking rate is 6% lower for men and 10% lower for women than the United States (Weschler 2000). While total alcohol consumption is higher, the culture of drinking tends to focus on moderation rather than arbitrary age restrictions. A plausible reason for this is that the consumption of alcohol is nothing new when these students enter college; they already have established drinking habits from living at home and the social expectations of excessive drinking are reduced (Weschler 2000).
Contrary to popular belief, proposals to re-evaluate the current drinking age aren’t just being offered by college students looking to cheat the system. These proposals are being put forth by authority figures that have firsthand knowledge of the harmful effects of the current system. The Amethyst Initiative is a coalition of college presidents who recognize the failures of the 21 age bar and believe this actually encourages binge drinking. Current signatories include the presidents of Duke, Dartmouth, John Hopkins and over 100 other universities (Rethink 2008). These university presidents are committed to starting a debate on the right consumption policy. It is time for the American people to follow their example and start a dispassionate debate and focus on reducing the incentives for current college students to binge drink.
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