A Lower Drinking Age?

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

SOME THINGS only seem like a good idea at 3 a.m. Increasingly, the Amethyst Letter, which more than 100 college presidents and chancellors signed last year to advocate rethinking the drinking age, looks like one of them. A study just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that binge drinking has decreased nationwide with the increased drinking age -- everywhere but on college campuses.

A variety of factors may contribute to the decline in binge drinking among young non-students -- the presence of parents, the demands of jobs, more difficult access to drinking-age peers. But the lessons for school administrators are clear. Where the drinking age is enforced, harmful drinking behaviors have been in overall decline. But on campuses, binge drinking has remained stable -- or gotten worse. And in areas such as women's binge drinking that have increased in the population at large, the increase for college students has outpaced that for their non-student peers.

Those on college campuses who favor a lower drinking age point out that students will decide to drink regardless of the law, and forcing them to do so in secret and illegally will make behaviors such as binge drinking harder to monitor. But outside college campuses, where underage drinking is clearly prohibited, young people more often have made the decision not to drink. This, in turn, has helped drive down drunk driving, assault and other unsafe behaviors. For further proof, college administrators should consider their drug policies; the perception that drug use will not be tolerated can and does influence students' choices.

The journal's study drives home the fact that, when young people know that the law will be upheld, they adjust their behavior. It's time for college administrators to stop passing the buck to the drinking age and start taking their in loco parentis role more seriously. Instead of complaining about the drinking age, they should try enforcing it.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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