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135 university presidents and chancellors have opened a debate on the minimum legal drinking age in the U.S. Should it be lowered? Researchers say the decades of data make the answer clear as gin.

When scores of college and university presidents and chancellors agree on any one issue, it’s bound to garner notice. But when the subject is college binge drinking, and the thing they agree upon is to sign a Web pledge created by a group that encourages debate about lowering the minimum drinking age, the media firestorm that follows is almost a fait accompli. Such is the case with the Amethyst Initiative, a concept created by John M. McCardell, Jr., president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont.

On its website, the Amethyst Initiative boldly proclaims, “Twenty-one is not working.” The Amethyst pledge argues that since Congress pressured states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21 in 1984, a culture of off-campus “clandestine ‘binge drinking’” has developed and students have not significantly changed their behavior. (Public health researchers dispute both points.)

It is a startling argument, one that caught the attention of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more than 100 newspapers and media outlets. It also moved 135 college and university presidents—including former Hopkins President William R. Brody—to sign the pledge. And though some presidents, including Brody, signed to pledge to raise issues and seek solutions outside of changing the drinking age, as McCardell notes, “I would say many of the signatories of Amethyst do, in fact, support lowering the drinking age.”

But, would lowering the drinking age help cure or only exacerbate the problem?

There’s no doubt that binge drinking is a huge problem on college campuses. According to a 2008 National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) survey, 41 percent of college students said that in the two weeks prior to their interview they had engaged in binge drinking, defined as having consumed five or more drinks within two hours.

But it’s not just binge drinkers who are creating problems. Alcohol use in general by students has created a crisis. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) figures show that alco­hol consumption annually plays a role in the deaths of 1,700 college students, 599,000 unintentional nonfatal injuries, 696,000 assaults and 97,000 sexual assaults, including date rape. Given those horrifying numbers, one can understand why college administrators are anxiously looking at new strategies to attack these issues.

But is lowering the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) the answer? Bloom­berg School faculty who’ve studied the problem are unanimous in their response:


“I’ve not seen one shred of evidence that allowing an earlier onset of legal drinking in 18- to 20-year-olds will have any positive impact on them,” says Debra Furr-Holden, PhD, an assistant professor of Mental Health who specializes in drug and alcohol dependence epidemiology. Furr-Holden’s comments echo those of her colleagues: The data show that raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 has had numerous public health benefits, which investigators fear will greatly erode if the drinking age is lowered.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for example, has estimated that 900 lives are saved annually due to MLDA laws, with more than 25,000 lives saved since 1975.

Researchers have confidence in their arguments because the move has been so well studied. In the 1970s, partially in response to the lowering of the voting age to 18 in 1971, 29 states dropped their MLDA below 21 between 1970 and 1975. Studies done in the immediate aftermath showed a significant jump in teenage auto accidents. Pressure came from citizen groups to push the MLDA back to 21. That happened under the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was a great research opportunity,” says David Jernigan, PhD, associate professor of Health, Behavior and Society, and one of the country’s foremost experts on alcohol public policy.

The reason the Act was an epidemiological goldmine is that it wasn’t implemented all at once. In fact, Congress left it up to the states whether to change their laws or not. The cutlass the feds held over their heads was slashing 10 percent of a state’s annual federal highway funding if it didn’t comply. The resulting variations between states—some such as Washington and Pennsylvania had age 21 minimums on the books since the 1930s, some moved from 18 to 21 in 1984, while others such as Wyoming and South Dakota didn’t fully go to 21 until 1988—allowed “so many natural experiments, easy comparisons that public health researchers could make,” says Jernigan. The resulting sophisticated, quantitative analysis has continued for decades. “There have been literally hundreds of studies that have looked at the law,” he says. “The preponderance of the evidence is clear: These laws have saved thousands of young people’s lives.”

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Alcohol on Campus: The Problem

Alcohol on Campus

Alcohol abuse takes an appalling toll on college campuses in the U.S. each year. Alcohol policy expert David Jernigan surveys the consequences.

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