A group of 120 college presidents is pushing to lower the drinking age to 18, in an effort to curb binge drinking on campus. They’ve got an impressive name, the Amethyst Initiative, named after the ancient Greek words that mean “not intoxicated.”
These college leaders hope that a lower drinking age will encourage more responsible drinking. They also think it will cut the excessive, furtive, forbidden thrill of drinking _ “pregaming,” in kidspeak _ before a frat party or other public appearance. But we think these top academics forgot their Econ 101. Legalizing something generally invites more indulgence, not less.
Yes, binge drinking is widespread, entrenched and pernicious. And that is surely frustrating for college officials. But their strategy reeks of surrender.
Kids under age 21 don’t drink because it’s illegal. And they won’t stop drinking if it is legal. Another problem with lowering the drinking age: Surveys _ and experience _ suggest that making alcohol abundant and available to 18-year-olds also opens the spigot wider for 17- and 16-year-olds and even younger teens.
The current age threshold doesn’t stop many underage college students from drinking, But there’s evidence that the higher drinking age has curbed some binge drinking. In 1984, when Congress effectively mandated the 21-year-old age limit, 45.4 percent of college students engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks in a row at any point in a two-week period. That’s according to Monitoring the Future, which conducts an annual national survey of drug and alcohol use by young people. By 2006, that figure was 40.2 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who reported drinking every day fell by more than a quarter.
Statistics on the effects of the higher drinking age on driving fatalities are even more dramatic. As legal drinking ages have gone up, the number of young people ages 16 to 20 killed in alcohol-related crashes has plummeted by nearly 60 percent _ from 5,224 in 1982 to 2,121 in 2006. This even as the number of young people killed in non-alcohol-related crashes has increased by 34 percent.
Some of that drop is attributed to other factors, including safer cars and increasing seat belt usage _ and greater awareness of the perils of drinking and driving. But the trends are known and predictable: When states lowered their drinking ages in the 1970s, alcohol-related crashes involving teens rose. Do the math. Does anyone doubt that putting alcohol in legal reach of 18-year-olds wouldn’t instantly result in more accidents and drunken driving deaths?
The argument most often trotted out to defend this proposal is fairness: If an 18-year-old is old enough to fight in a war, he or she should also enjoy the right to drink. That sounds like a compelling rationale. Except it’s wrong. Society confers different rights and responsibilities at different ages _ in many places, even a 24-year-old can’t rent a car, for instance. The right to join the military and fight at 18 doesn’t automatically qualify you for every other right and privilege of adulthood, particularly if experience and statistics show that it’s a bad idea.
Those college presidents are right to be alarmed about underage drinking on campus. But we’d rather see them pouring their energies into making sure that authorities enforce local laws against serving or selling to minors. And making sure that residence hall advisers are riding herd, not looking the other way. And pioneering new campaigns to convince college kids that they risk their health, and their lives, with heavy drinking.
Lowering the drinking age would transfer responsibility _ and in some cases legal liability _ from colleges and their presidents to the immature shoulders of 18-year-olds.
That would be lethal and unwise.