Experts debate merit of making drinking age 21

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What role does the 21-year-old drinking age play in the phenomenon of young adults bingeing on alcohol? This has become a fiercely debated topic in the past few years.

Some experts suggest that it is almost irrelevant, since teens will drink, whether they are 21 or not and whether it is legal or not, and that the law may encourage binge drinking because teens will want to consume very quickly to avoid getting caught. Others say that the 21-year-old limit, adopted in every state by 1988, makes it much harder for young people to obtain alcohol and has dramatically reduced the number of car accidents and resulting deaths.

Traci Toomey, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who has studied the numbers, said setting the drinking age at 21 "has been one of the most successful alcohol control policies we've had in the U.S. When the drinking age was lowered [in many states in the 1970s and 1980s,] that led to more consumption and traffic crashes."

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 1982 and 1998 there was a 61 precent drop in young drivers killed in car accidents in which alcohol was involved, even as the number of deaths among nondrinking teen drivers slightly increased.

Yet, the law hasn't really budged the number of binge drinkers, said Barrett Seaman, director of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit group, and author of "Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You."

"The 21 drinking age is not stopping the 13-year-old from drinking alcohol from a Gatorade bottle," he said. "And colleges are not able to police it. If they crack down hard and declare a campus dry, students go off campus. You lose control."

This helps explain an effort pushed several years ago by the heads of some U.S. colleges to reconsider the 21-year-old age limit. "A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' - often conducted off-campus - has developed," wrote more than 100 college presidents, including leaders from Middlebury College, Dartmouth College, the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

As popular as that point of view was on college campuses, it was extremely controversial nearly everywhere else and has not gotten any traction.

Some proponents of a lower drinking age point to the European model, where drinking is part of growing up and where the official drinking age can be as low as 15 but often isn't enforced very carefully. They argue that such a system teaches young people how to drink responsibly in a family or public setting.

Yet, a 2003 study and a 2007 follow-up by the Swedish Council for Information on Alcohol and Other Drugs that tracked drinking patterns among 100,000 young people in 35 countries found high rates of recent heavy episodic drinking there as well - above 50 percent in Britain in the 2007 study, and more than 35 percent in France, Italy, Ireland, Sweden and several other countries.

- Laura Hambleton

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