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Proof? (continued)

College administrators are, understandably, concerned with those they’re paid to protect, namely the nation’s roughly 18 million college students. They look at the devastation alcohol is creating on and off their campuses, and think there has to be a better way, especially because so many of their students started drinking in high school. NIDA statistics show that 72 percent high school seniors have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives. “But the law says ‘don’t drink,’” notes John McCardell. “How can we say this law has been effective?”

Public health researchers tend to look at the larger picture, including the rest of the age 18 to 20 population who never go to college but would also be affected by any national change in the drinking age (see related story). These young adults make up, by some estimates, nearly half of the entire demographic.

Looking at the overall group, Susan Baker, MPH ’68, says it is impossible to ignore the effect of raising the MLDA to 21. “The decrease in alcohol-related crashes involving drivers [under 21] was far greater than in any other age group. It dropped fatal crashes,” notes Baker, a Health Policy and Management professor and co-director of the NIAAA’s Training Program in Alcohol, Injury and Violence. Conversely, she predicts, “If you lower the drinking age, young people are going to drink and drive more and crash more and kill more people and not just themselves.”

The numbers bear out Baker’s assessment. According to the NHTSA, between 1984 and 1998, fatal crashes involving drunken youth dropped 61 percent. Driving after binge drinking dropped 45 percent, while binge drinking itself fell 22 percent.

That last statistic is of particular interest to researchers. The claim that binge drinking suddenly showed up on campus when the MLDA was raised is, in David Jernigan’s opinion, patently false. “Show me the evidence that that’s something new,” demands Jernigan, adding that in more than 25 years of research, no such data has ever crossed his desk. Quite the opposite. “Binge drinking has always been there,” he adds. “That’s what we battle here, that’s true. But 21 didn’t create that.”

In fact, Jernigan says it may help combat it.

It’s hard to argue that, nationwide, increasing the MLDA to 21 didn’t alter behavior patterns. In the first seven years after the new drinking age was rolled out, Jernigan notes, the number of 18- to 20-year-olds who said they were currently drinking dropped from 59 percent to 40 percent. Though that decline reversed itself a bit by the turn of the millennium, it was still significantly below pre-MLDA 21 levels.

Similarly, there was an on-campus impact, especially with regard to drinking and driving. From 1982 to 1991, covering the transition period, students who reported driving after consuming several drinks dropped by
27 percent.

“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.

Given all this data, Jernigan is asked how he feels about Amethyst’s claim that “Twenty-one is not working” on college campuses.

His answer is surprising. “I would agree. Twenty-one isn’t working.”

He goes on to explain, “The reason it isn’t working is because the rest of the environment completely undercuts it. We set that law out there by itself as if it’s supposed to do the whole job. Of course, it’s not.”

Jernigan points to the drinking stats on campus as an example of where MLDA 21 needs help. The law didn’t do much to significantly change the overall prevalence of drinking. In 1991, 74.7 percent of all college students reported having a drink in the previous month. In 2007, it was 66.6 percent, still a vast majority. And binge drinking numbers have hardly changed in 25 years.

But Jernigan insists that lowering the MLDA isn’t the answer. Nor is alcohol education per se. “There’s a naïve belief among educators that you can educate your way out of anything. What the research has shown over and over again in my field is that alcohol education all by itself doesn’t work,” says Jernigan.

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Alcohol on Campus: The Solutions

Alcohol on Campus

Preventing deaths, injuries and other problems related to alcohol abuse requires multiple, coordinated solutions, says David Jernigan.

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