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Rethinking drinking

Young people and alcohol are a dangerous mix, and we need to take a fresh look at the problem.

August 21, 2008

Moving with an alacrity not often seen in academia, the presidents of more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities have signed a newly circulated manifesto calling for the country to "rethink the drinking age." They weren't standing up for the maturity of their underclassmen, however; if anything, they were signaling their frustration at their students' lack of maturity. Binge drinking is a growing problem among underage students, and these administrators believe that it's time to change the United States' approach to regulating teenage drinking.

The presidents' signatures were gathered by a nonprofit group called Choose Responsibility. It acknowledges that delaying legal drinking until age 21 reduces the number of youths imbibing, but contends that the ones who do drink consume more. The effort has drawn a pointed rebuttal from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which argues that banning teen drinking saves lives. Rather than accommodating the youthful urge to drink, MADD says, colleges should enforce the law more vigorously.

There is plenty of statistical evidence that raising the drinking age to 21, which the federal government effectively forced states to do in the early 1980s, has reduced traffic fatalities caused by alcohol-fogged teens. Yet there's also evidence that the number of suicides, drownings and other non-traffic deaths associated with underage drinking has gone up disproportionately fast, as has binge drinking.

The underage alcoholic excess that gave rise to the manifesto is a problem we should be solving. And although it's hard to believe that the current drinking age is to blame, it does limit the ways colleges can respond. Youths are drawn to alcohol by a number of enticements, including peer approval and the near-incessant promotion in pop culture of drinking. Against those forces, the only educational message colleges can deliver to students is "Don't." It's worth considering ways to teach young people how to drink responsibly -- for example, by letting states create limited, provisional rights. But such steps wouldn't matter if colleges can't persuade students to observe any limits. Without effective enforcement, new rules won't stop the bingeing either.

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