It’s a damp November night as scores of people file into Manhattanville College’s Reid Castle in Purchase. The air in the makeshift auditorium grows thick as the large crowd sits through the two-and-a-half hour presentation, but few leave before its conclusion. They’ve come to hear the first-ever national debate on an incendiary topic: whether the legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18.
The champion of this nascent movement, an instrumental force in orchestrating the event, is a man named John McCardell. “I didn’t start out thinking the drinking age ought to be eighteen, but that’s where I ended up,” he says. You’d be forgiven for assuming McCardell is a college student himself—a fraternity president, perhaps. But, in fact, he’s a college president emeritus, of Vermont’s Middlebury College.
So convinced is he that America’s set the bar (and access to its contents) too high for young adults that he’s formed an organization, Choose Responsibility, to promote drinking-age discussions. Last June, he also helped create the Amethyst Initiative, an organization calling for college presidents to discuss current alcohol policies. Its signatories, which currently number 135, are all college and university presidents, among them Manhattanville’s Richard Berman, SUNY Purchase’s Thomas J. Schwarz, Dartmouth’s James E. Wright, and Thomas J. Scanlan of Manhattan College.
Say what? College administrators entertaining the return of a world where a frosh can get a keg? Have they been hitting the sauce themselves? For there is one indisputable fact: since the states uniformly raised the drinking age to 21 in the mid-’80s, drunk-driving fatalities among young adults have fallen by 60 percent. And for most people, that makes it an open-and-shut case. In a recent Manhattanville survey of New York State voters, two-thirds of those polled would be against lowering the age again.
But there’s far more to the issue, as the debate in Manhattanville, and discourse among leading experts, reveals. The controversy is gathering steam, creating interest among young people, their anxious parents, and academic and government policymakers. Here’s a closer look at why some minds are being changed—and why the issue likely won’t be laid to rest anytime soon.
The Case for Keeping on Course
Considering America’s historically fraught relationship with alcohol, it’s hardly surprising that the drinking age has bounced around the dial for the past 90 years. During Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to make, sell, or transport alcohol for consumption, so nobody could drink at all (well, not legally, anyway). After the repeal, many states set the threshold at 21.
Profound societal changes in the 1970s led many lawmakers nationwide to reconsider, however. In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and soon all but 12 states dropped the drinking age to as low as 18 as well. Some experts hoped this would also divert young adults from trying the plethora of illegal drugs flooding the hippie scene.
Yet it became evident over the next decade or so that letting 18-year-olds belly up to the bar was far different than allowing them to stuff a ballot box. “Studies in the 1970s and 1980s showed significant increases in alcohol-related traffic crashes among young people aged sixteen to twenty in states that had lowered their drinking age,” says James Fell, director of Traffic Safety and Enforcement Programs at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.
A push back began. In 1980, Candy Lightner, whose daughter was killed by a repeat drunk driver, founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), an organization whose primary goals included the prevention of underage drinking. Two years later, a President’s Commission on Drunk Driving was assembled, which teamed with MADD and Congress to recommend a Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act setting the age at 21. The hope was to reduce alcohol-related deaths and also to eliminate the phenomenon of teens crossing the “blood border”—from higher-age states to lower ones—on dangerous, alcohol-fueled road trips.
In 1984, Congress passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act, which stipulated that states had to adopt 21 as the minimum legal drinking age or risk having a portion of their federal highway construction funds withheld. From Hawaii to Maine, the country fell in line between 1984 and 1988, as states with lower drinking ages raised them to comply with the new rules. Underage alcohol consumption dropped, while studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found the law helped reduce drunk-driving fatalities by 13 percent among 18- to 20-year-olds. In all, it’s estimated that 800 to 900 lives are saved yearly by the older legal drinking age.
There’s an abundance of data to back the facts. More than 40 studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of raising the drinking age, and nearly all have found lower alcohol-related crashes among young people. In fact, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control, lowering the minimum drinking age had caused a 10-percent increase in alcohol-related car crashes, while raising the age had led to a plummet of 16 percent.
Tough figures to argue with, right? Wrong…
Second Thoughts on the Status Quo
One compelling argument against the current minimum drinking age is that, measured against our larger legal framework, it’s a curious contradiction (see box below, “When 18’s Old Enough”). “The law says that at eighteen, you’re an adult. I didn’t make the law; that’s what it decrees,” says Middlebury’s McCardell. “Drinking is the one exception. To young people, that’s hard to understand: Why, in this single instance, is a nineteen-year-old deemed to be incapable of exercising responsibility?”
Natasha Stover, 20, a Manhattanville student, agrees. “I just feel like we can do everything else,” she says. “It seems hypocritical to say we can’t drink. Never, ever would I consider driving after I’d been drinking. I want to be trusted.” Interestingly, data from our neighbors to the north suggest that today’s teens and young adults are indeed less reckless than those a generation ago. In Canada, the drinking age has been either 18 or 19 since 1984, yet Canadian rates of alcohol-related crashes among the 20-and-under set have fallen in a way that’s similar to ours.
Across the pond, there’s further evidence that many people under 21 can drink responsibly. There are not many places in Europe where the drinking age is higher than 18 (20 in Iceland) and in some places, like Germany, France, and Italy, you have to be only 16 to get served. Yet, according to a 2003 study conducted by the World Health Organization, Europeans on the whole have a lower rate of drinking-to-intoxication incidents than we do here.
Still, Natasha is the first to admit that many American parents would probably disagree with her about how trustworthy people her age can be. And she’s right, as a call to her father Walter, in Portland, Maine, confirms. “People between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two make some of the worst decisions of their lives,” he contends. “That’s when they’re first away from their parents, trying to do things for themselves for the first time. It can be hard for them to even decide how to eat properly, let alone drink.”
However, current data show it’s older adults who often have the most trouble handling their alcohol. According to NHTSA, 25- to 34-year-olds are most likely to be involved in alcohol-related crashes, not teens or even 21- to 24-year-olds. And alcohol and drug-alcohol overdoses among 35- to 50-year-olds outstrip those among 20- to 25-year-olds by nearly three to one.
One might argue it’s because these are the age groups that are able to get their hands on alcohol. But that isn’t really true either, McCardell points out. “All the data show that the vast majority of young people have tried drinking before age twenty-one. Seventy-five percent of high-school seniors have done it. On its own terms, this law isn’t working.” Some even question how big a role the current drinking age has played in the drop in underage drunk-driving accidents. Though the number has fallen since 1984, the trend actually began two years before the drinking age was raised. Furthermore, rates actually increased in the first several years after the MLDA went into effect. It does beg the question of what else may factor into the decline, experts say, from improved motor-vehicle safety features (everything from better seatbelts to airbags) to the practice of having a designated driver—a concept unheard of 25 years ago.
Facets of the Front Lines
As thought-provoking as the conflicting data may be, what’s even more striking are the vastly different, yet equally passionate, opinions of those who deal directly with students and problem drinkers.
On the far end, there’s McCardell and many of the 135 signatories of the Amethyst Initiative. Some, including SUNY Purchase President Schwarz, have signed on merely to encourage public discourse. “I’m not sure eighteen is the right age,” Schwarz says. “I just think we need to have a serious debate about what we’re doing with alcohol in this country. There’s a mystique about alcohol right now. It becomes this challenge, almost like a red badge of courage, to drink so much that you get sick and throw up. We’re a state institution; I’m obliged to enforce the law. But do it too strongly and you put kids in their cars to go somewhere else to drink. You’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Other Amethyst Initiative signatories share McCardell’s views wholeheartedly, that, as he puts it, “the current drinking-age law is a bad law.” What it does, he and many college presidents contend, is not eliminate drinking so much as ban it from public places and public view. “Instead of permitting drinking in restaurants and at student unions, where colleges could keep a watchful eye, it leaves students to drink underground—behind closed doors, and in clandestine locations such as farmers’ fields, basically into the most risky environments,” he says.
This forces college administrators into an unfamiliar backdrop as well: “There’s only one position we can take,” says McCardell, “to preach abstinence only. We’re doing that instead of being able to educate students—and we are educators—about alcohol in ways that go beyond scare tactics and temperance lectures.” The results, he says, have been disastrous, from a dramatic rise in binge drinking to more off-highway alcohol fatalities among 18- to 24-year-olds. “Yet,” he adds, “a president who preaches moderation gets pilloried by MADD for shirking responsibility.”
He’d be largely right about that, and MADD isn’t sorry to say so. “We are very much against lowering the drinking age,” says Carol Sears, president of Westchester’s MADD chapter. “The college presidents who’ve signed the Amethyst Initiative are not doing it to promote underage or lots of drinking. They’re looking to stop binge drinking, and we feel this isn’t the way to do it.” NHTSA and the American Medical Association are against lowering the drinking age as well, she adds.
“The assumption is that if you make drinking legal, you take away the ‘going up against adults’ aspect of the behavior, and then these young people won’t do it anymore,” Sears says. “But young people drink because they drink, not to be rebellious.” She and other experts point out that a drinking age of 18 would bring alcohol down to the high-school level, too, possibly making it easier for even younger kids to drink.
Sears’s husband was killed, and Sears herself confined to a wheelchair for six months, after a drunk driver plowed into them on I-95 in Georgia seven years ago. “The man was twenty-four but had an arrest record for drunk driving since the age of sixteen,” she says. “It took killing my husband to stop him.” She believes the solution isn’t to lower the drinking age but to raise alcohol-abuse awareness among the underage. “Parents need to educate their children and set consequences. Right now there’s this business of social hosting, where some mothers and fathers allow drinking at teenage kids’ parties in their home. The bottom line is, it’s illegal to serve anyone under twenty-one alcohol, unless it’s your own child.”
If anything, she adds, there should be more, not less, policing of problem drinkers of any age. “Every month, we run these things in Westchester called Victim Impact Panels,” Sears says. “All the people who have been arrested for driving while under the influence pay fifty dollars to MADD, and listen to me and others speak, along with police. They see a horrific movie, too, and then I plead with them not to get behind the wheel.
“There are times when we can have up to a thousand people at the panel, and as they come in, they’re breathalyzed. Every month we get at least four people who are drunk.”
In the end, is there no middle ground? McCardell suggests drinkers be required to go through a licensing process, similar to those that drivers must submit to, with education and training (perhaps a flight of beers?). Meanwhile he’d like to see the federal government repeal the federal highway-funding sanctions against states that would like to lower their drinking age again.
Almost everyone, for now, seems to agree on one thing: more discussion is in order. “The facts need to be brought out,” says Manhattanville’s Richard Berman. “The main hope of the initiative is that we can begin to have factual-based discussions about this emotional topic, and Manhattanville College is taking the national leadership on this.” Berman is unfazed by the poll showing most Americans are happy to keep the drinking age as it is, even though it was Manhattanville itself that conducted it. “Go back in time eighty years,” he says. “If the majority of voting people then didn’t want women to have the vote, should we have said we therefore wouldn’t engage in a policy discussion?”
At Manhattanville, and nationwide, the debate rages on, providing more food—and, perhaps, drink—for thought.
When 18’s Old Enough
While the law states that you have to be 21 to drink, Americans have to be only 18 to do any of the following:
Enlist or be drafted into the armed forces
Marry, adopt children, or become a legal guardian
Open a bank account, go into debt, own property, sue or be sued
Seek or hold public office
Smoke, buy lottery tickets, and gamble (depending on the state)
Enter into a legally binding contract
The 21 Club
The only other countries that have a drinking age as high as ours are Armenia, United Arab Emirates, Fiji, Northern Mariana Islands, and some parts of India (in some areas the age is as high as 25). Alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Brunei, Bangladesh, Iran, and Kuwait.
Deborah Skolnik lives in Scarsdale, and is a senior editor at Parenting magazine. She never engaged in underaged drinking. Yeah, right.