Would an age 18 minimum curb alcohol abuse?

USA TODAY’S VIEW: “IDEA GAINS TRACTION ON CAMPUS, BUT EVIDENCE SHOWS 21 LAW SAVES LIVES.”

Article from USA Today, Page 12A

On most college campuses, only seniors and some juniors are old enough to consume alcohol legally. But you’d never notice that distinction on a Saturday night. Or, for that matter, Thursday night or Friday night.

Despite the minimum drinking age of 21, students of all ages imbibe, many to excess. The American Medical Association links drinking to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 sexual assault cases on campuses every year.

This all suggests that the age 21 law has been about as successful at preventing underage drinking as Prohibition was at banning alcohol from society as a whole. So does that mean it’s time to revert to 18? Supporters of the idea, which is gaining traction, make a number of logical arguments. But what sounds logical isn’t necessarily prudent public policy.

The drinking age is a hot topic on campuses and beyond. In the past five years, four states have considered lowering the age, set at 21 in 1984 by Congress. Former college president John McCardell created an advocacy group, Choose Responsibility, that is pushing for age 18, coupled with an education and licensing program. Not surprisingly, more than 30,000 students have signed a pro-18 online petition.

The pro-18 argument goes like this: If 18-year-olds are allowed to vote and serve in the military, they ought to be able to drink. The age 21 minimum simply undermines respect for the law and prevents young people from learning to drink responsibly at home before they get to college. Once they arrive, the 21 law prevents them from imbibing sociably in restaurants or bars. Instead, students huddle in dorm rooms or fraternity and sorority houses, where they tend to binge on “forbidden fruit” and harm themselves or others.

These arguments are not without merit. The pro-18 case, however, runs aground over the inconvenient truth about highway deaths. In the early 1970s, many states lowered the drinking age to 18 to accommodate Vietnam War veterans, but when alcohol-related highway deaths rose, states went back to 21.

About 50 major studies point to the same conclusion: On average, traffic deaths drop by 16% when the drinking age goes from 18 to 21. Since 1984, about 25,000 lives have been saved, federal highway authorities estimate. While it’s true that other safety measures, such as seat belts, save even more lives, that’s not a reason for giving up the gains attributable to the drinking age.

Lowering the legal drinking age would undoubtedly make even more alcohol, purchased legally by 18-year-olds, available to younger teens, some of whom are just learning to drive. Inexperienced drivers and alcohol are a particularly dangerous mix.

Choose Responsibility’s argument that 18-year-olds could be issued “drinking licenses” after completing alcohol education courses is also unconvincing. Would fake drinking licenses be any less rampant than fake IDs are now?

Rather than try to poke holes in leak-proof research, groups such as Choose Responsibility would be better off advising colleges how to deal effectively with a difficult issue, without either turning a blind eye or transforming campuses into police states.

Americans are entering a holiday season, Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve, during which 1,773 people — 247 of them under 21 — were killed in alcohol-related crashes a year ago. To be sure, the problem is far more complex than an arbitrary age limit, be it 18 or 21. But based on the best available evidence, lowering the drinking age would only increase the carnage.

Posted at 12:22 AM/ET, November 26, 2007

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