University presidents sign on to support lowering drinking age

Thursday, September 18, 2008

In ancient Greece, amethyst was believed to ward off drunkenness and prevent the negative effects of intoxication. This purple gemstone is now the symbol for a national movement, the Amethyst Initiative, which seeks to open debate on America’s minimum legal drinking age.

One-hundred and thirty college and university presidents and chancellors have endorsed the initiative in an effort to curb binge drinking on college campuses and help prepare students “to make responsible decisions about alcohol,” according to the initiative’s Web site.

But the movement is meeting forceful resistance from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which maintains that any reduction in minimum legal age would be counter-productive.

Although Brown has not joined the movement, former President Gordon Gee and leaders at peer institutions including Dartmouth and Duke University have.

Though Allen Ward, senior associate dean for student life, declined to comment on the University’s position on the Amethyst Initiative, he said that University administrators and faculty are aware of the movement.

“Independently, lots of folks are looking at this,” he said. “In general, (underage drinking) is a concern and I don’t think it’s any greater or less of a concern than at any other institution.”

In an e-mail to the Herald, Vice President of Public Affairs and University Relations Marisa Quinn wrote that Brown usually doesn’t sign external petitions because “most issues are generally more complex than can be addressed in a single statement.” She added that “every institution of higher education has a particular point of departure on this matter. … Brown’s approach is to emphasize efforts to educate students and to ensure safe and responsible decisions.”

Cultures of Drinking

In 1984, the federal government mandated that all states set their minimum legal drinking age to 21 – which brought the minimum up from 18, 19 or 20 in many states. Suzanne Colby, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior who has researched drinking habits for two decades, says the culture surrounding alcohol on campus was different prior to that change.

Before a “legal divide” separated college students and faculty, they would smoke and drink socially together, she said. “Relationships weren’t as polarized as they tend to be now.”

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Dwight Heath, who has been writing about cross-cultural drinking for 50 years, echoed Colby’s recollection of the different alcohol culture. In his college days, Heath said, drunkenness was rare and “generally an accident.”

According to Heath, “the earlier people start to drink, the less people have problems.” In Western European countries, he said, like “France, Spain and Italy, where everybody drinks from 5 or 6 years up,” adolescents “learn to drink in a moderate manner.”

“They learn about it around the dinner table,” he said. Heath suggested that drinking should be “learned in an appropriate context with supervision.”

In these Western European countries, the rate of alcohol consumption is generally high, Heath said, but binge drinking is less common. In the United States, though, trends show that raising the legal drinking age in the 1980s reduced the amount of drinking overall in the United States, but has increased the frequency of binge drinking, he added.

“The fact that we’re concerned with binge drinking among college students – that is a major change in culture,” Heath said. But “if culture could change one way in a generation, it could presumably change back in a generation.”

A Controversial Debate

But not everyone wants to reopen the debate on America’s drinking age. Mothers Against Drunk Driving strongly opposes the Amethyst Initiative and has launched a campaign to dissuade university officials from adding their names to the movement’s petition.

In an Aug. 19 press release, MADD accused the signers of the petition of endorsing “a misguided initiative that uses deliberately misleading information to confuse the public on the effectiveness of 21 law.”

“As the mother of a daughter who is close to entering college, it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our educational leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science,” MADD President Laura Dean-Mooney said in an Aug. 28 press release. “Parents should think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge drinking policies.”

MADD has also initiated a letter-writing campaign in order to put pressure on leaders of universities who have signed the Amethyst petition, successfully getting several to remove their names.

Nancy Barnett, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior who is affiliated with the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, said the data support the claim that the higher minimum drinking age has correlated positively with saving lives over the past two decades.

“In a nutshell, the research shows very consistently that raising the drinking age to 21 resulted in a reduction in fatal car crashes. I don’t think that is easily contradicted,” Barnett told The Herald. And if there is “empirical evidence that having a higher drinking age has saved lives,” then “the rationale for lowering the drinking age back to 18 (would have to be) extremely compelling,” she wrote in an e-mail.

On the other hand, the argument that “the higher drinking age is directly linked to things like binge drinking” is “very difficult to quantify and show empirically,” Barnett wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

In any case, she added, it’s important to keep the debate open: “I don’t think it is wrong to review the issue and consider both pros and cons of lowering the drinking age.”

Heath said University officials should not be intimidated by MADD.

“They’re using scare tactics,” Heath said. According to Heath, MADD is trying to portray the signers of the Amethyst Initiative as “looking to change the law, looking to avoid responsibility.”

Most of MADD’s research showing a decrease in car crash fatalities since the drinking age was raised nationwide in the 1980s “totally ignores seatbelts, airbags and speed limits – all of which have become common in the same time period,” Heath said.

Voices for Change

“I really support the reduction of the minimum legal drinking age, and I don’t take that position lightly,” Colby said.

While acknowledging that “the vast majority of researchers are not in favor” of reducing the minimum legal drinking age, Colby said she is concerned that current laws infantilize students and young adults, separating them from the adult models that could show youth how to drink responsibly.

“Underage drinking is marginalized and it gets much, much riskier as it’s driven underground,” both on university campuses and in the wider culture, she said.

Heath said that he agrees that the “21-year-old drinking age is counter-productive.” He said he strongly supports the Amethyst Initiative.

In light of the recent attention the Amethyst Initiative has brought to the question of minimum legal drinking age, the coming months, Barnett wrote, will “tell us whether this movement really has enough substance to move policy.”

But Colby said that she doesn’t see a change in the law “happening any time soon.”

“The discussion is so taboo,” she said, that legislators probably won’t endorse any movement on the current position for the same reason that the University hasn’t: Staying with the “status quo” is an “easily defensible position.”

“The government is very invested in keeping the drinking age at 21,” she said.

And even if the law does change? “The culture is probably going to take decades to change back.”