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Tempest in a bottle

Should drinking alcohol be legal at 18, instead of 21? Now that college presidents have proposed a debate, here are the statistics and the science that could shape the outcome.

September 01, 2008|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Gordie BAILEY JR. had been in college only one month before he overdosed on alcohol. Urged on by members of a frat house he was intent on joining, the 18-year-old drank until he passed out, was dumped onto a couch and was found dead the next morning. The 2004 incident at the University of Colorado was one of the approximately 1,700 alcohol-related deaths that occur among college students each year in the United States. They include traffic accidents, falls, suffocation, drowning and alcohol poisoning. Hundreds of thousands of other students commit crimes, become crime victims, fail classes, make poor sexual decisions or sicken themselves by drinking too much alcohol. In a survey published last year by the American College Health Assn., just over one-third of college students admitted they had binged on alcohol at least once in the previous two weeks -- a number that appears to be rising.

Underage drinking has long alarmed college administrators and health professionals. But now a deep schism is forming among those same people on how to address the problem.

Last month, more than 100 college presidents signed a petition calling for a debate on whether the minimum legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18.

The statement says in part: "Our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that twenty-one is not working. A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' -- often conducted off-campus -- has developed."

Some health professionals agree it's time to discuss the proposal, but other health experts and college officials are aghast.

Each side has statistics to support its position -- but most of the health and safety evidence falls squarely on the side of an age-21 limit.

"There is a growing body of knowledge that suggests strong reasons for parents and other concerned people to try to keep alcohol out of the hands of young people as long as we can," says Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Fewer traffic deaths

Statistics on traffic fatalities prove the law works, says Michele Simon, research and policy director at the Marin Institute, an alcohol industry watchdog group in San Rafael, Calif. In 1984, a federal standard was established setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21. Since then, traffic fatalities among drivers ages 18 to 20 have fallen by an estimated 13%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"That is a really important measure of success," says Simon. "Back in the 1970s when states started lowering the drinking age to 18, that's when this experiment began. There were increases in traffic fatalities, and people said let's go back to the way it was. We forget there is so much science and historical context here. We have been down this road before."

* Among those studies comparing the years before 1984 with the current era was a 2001 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which found that college students who reported drinking in the last month fell from 82% in 1980 to 67% in 2000.

* In 2007, the University of Michigan's annual Monitoring the Future survey found that annual alcohol use by high school seniors has dropped from 77% in 1991 to 66% last year.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for the harmful health effects of drinking at a young age come from studies on biology and addiction, Foster says.

* A 2002 report from the American Medical Assn., citing numerous studies, concluded that alcohol use during adolescence and young adulthood causes damage to memory and learning capabilities.

* A study in the 2006 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that teens who began drinking before age 14 had a lifetime risk of alcohol dependence of 47% compared with 9% for those who began drinking at 21. For each additional year under age 21 of drinking, the greater the odds he or she would develop alcohol dependence. Though the cause of this correlation is unknown, some experts believe pure biology -- priming the young brain to need alcohol -- is involved.

"This is a public health problem and a medical problem," Foster says. "It's about the national failure to recognize addiction as a disease. If we think of it as kids behaving badly or breaking the rules, that gets in the way."

* And in a 2002 analysis of 33 high-quality studies on the age-21 drinking law's effects, University of Minnesota researcher Traci L. Toomey found that all but one study showed the higher age resulted in lower rates of alcohol consumption and traffic crashes.

"It is the most well-studied alcohol control policy we have in this country," says Toomey, an associate professor in the school of public health. "Usually we find no effect when we do policy studies. Here we have this policy effect that is very consistent -- a big chunk of the studies showing this inverse relationship."

Evidence for change

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