With the presidential debates now in the rearview mirror, another national dialogue is unfolding before the American public. It, too, is enormously consequential. Young lives hang in the balance.

Sound a bit dramatic? Perhaps, but in truth arguments both for and against lowering the minimum legal drinking age represent similar policy implications as did those addressing the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the war on Wall Street. This particular war concerns a public health crisis that neither side can, or wants to, ignore: catastrophic rates of underage — and in many cases high-risk (or binge) — drinking.

On that point, all seem to agree. It is the answer to the epidemic that remains contentious.

The Great Debate

Mostly settled in the 1980s by legislation linking a portion of federal highway funds to the current universal minimum legal drinking age of twenty-one, the issue has been placed back on the front burner by former Middlebury College president John M. McCardell, Jr., founder of Choose Responsibility and its Amethyst Initiative, which seeks to accelerate discussion around alcohol use and abuse on college campuses.

McCardell believes that alcohol is a fixture in the lives of young people and suggests, instead of trying to outlaw it, America should consider policies that will "empower" eighteen- to twenty-year-olds to make mature decisions about it.

Surely, an issue as important as this one deserves just the type of national consideration the Amethyst Initiative has called for. If nothing else, the back and forth will foster greater awareness of a problem that, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General's office, is a leading contributor to death from injuries, plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, increases the risk of assault, and is associated with academic failure and illicit drug use. For example:

  • An estimated 1,700 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries.
  • Approximately 600,000 students are injured while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Some 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking.
  • About 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual attacks or date rapes.

In addition, impaired driving crashes kill thousands of young people each year (they remain the leading cause of death for young people ages fifteen to twenty, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and injure many more.

Perhaps none of this is surprising when you consider the fact that alcohol is used more frequently and more heavily than all other drugs combined. Teens Today research from SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) reveals that the average age at which young people begin drinking is thirteen, and by the time they are seniors in high school, more than three in four teens use alcohol.

Bingeing Bonanza

Of considerable concern to all who address this issue is the way that young people drink. Binge drinking, something McCardell cites as a relatively new phenomenon, has become more of a means to an end (getting drunk) for many youth rather than part of a larger social strategy. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks in a row for boys and four or more in a row for girls.

From the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention:

Here's how the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration breaks out the risks.

  • Binge drinking, often beginning around age thirteen, tends to increase during adolescence, peak in young adulthood (ages eighteen to twentytwo), then gradually decrease.
  • Binge drinking during the past thirty days was reported by 8 percent of youth ages twelve to seventeen and 30 percent of those ages eighteen to twenty.
  • Among twelve- to twenty-year-olds, 15 percent were binge drinkers, and 7 percent were heavy drinkers.
  • Nearly one out of every five teenagers (16 percent) has experienced "blackout" spells in which he or she could not remember what happened the previous evening because of heavy binge drinking.
  • Binge drinking during high school, especially among males, is strongly predictive of binge drinking in college.
  • Frequent binge drinkers were eight times more likely than non-binge drinkers to miss a class, fall behind in schoolwork, get hurt or injured, and damage property.
  • Binge drinking during college may be associated with mental health disorders such as compulsiveness, depression, or anxiety, or early deviant behavior.
  • In colleges with high binge drinking rates, 34 percent of non-binge drinkers reported being insulted or humiliated by binge drinkers; 13 percent reported being pushed, hit, or assaulted; 54 percent reported having to take care of a drunken student; 68 percent were interrupted while studying; and 26 percent of women experienced an unwanted sexual advance.

The Amethyst Argument

McCardell and his 130 college president signatories concede the stats but argue that the current law forces drinking "underground" and out of sight of older adults, such as faculty members, who might actively, or perhaps subliminally, discourage inappropriate and irresponsible consumption. Amethyst states that it's time to rethink the drinking age because the current law is not working, instead creating a culture of dangerous and "clandestine" alcoholrelated behavior. In addition, the Initiative maintains that:

  • Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students;
  • Adults under twenty-one are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries, and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer; and
  • By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

"How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?" they ask while calling upon elected officials to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the twenty-one minimum legal drinking age; consider whether the 10 percent highway fund "incentive" encourages or inhibits that debate; and invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

For its part, Choose Responsibility argues for a "new paradigm" when it comes to the issue of alcohol use by those under the age of twenty-one. That paradigm suggests semantic changes (that anyone age eighteen or older consistently be referred to as an adult); reality-based alcohol education (a partnership between families and schools consisting of academic and experiential learning about alcohol); licensing (after completion of the education component, the student would receive a license entitling him/her to all the privileges and responsibilities of adults in the purchase, possession, and consumption of alcohol); and a congressional waiver (the Congress would permit states to apply for a waiver of the highway funding condition, setting specific criteria under which a waiver would be considered).

An Alternative View

At the other lectern is a broad slate of citizens, experts, and public servants who believe that lowering the minimum legal drinking age to eighteen will only exacerbate a national crisis of staggering proportion. Indeed, according to an ABC News poll, 78 percent of Americans do not believe that lowering the minimum legal drinking age is such a good idea.

Those who share that view include the American Medical Association, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Institutes of Health, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the U.S. Congress.

What's Their View?
According to these organizations, undoing the current minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws would likely do little, if anything, to reduce problematic drinking behaviors on college campuses. Most assuredly, it would contribute to the downward age-trending of initiation into alcohol use by legally moving it into the high school community. It is pertinent to note that, according to Teens Today, students in grades six to twelve ranked the drinking age as the number-one reason why they choose not to use alcohol.

Others recite recent data made available through advances in brain imaging technology about the permanent damage alcohol can inflict upon the structure and function of still-developing adolescent and young adult brains, all the while reminding us that the earlier young people begin to drink, the more likely it is that they will encounter alcohol-related problems later in life.

And one coalition, Why 21?, believes the problem rests with an inconsistent message sent by adults who allow young people to drink — illegally — by selling alcohol to those under twenty-one, providing or purchasing alcohol, looking the other way when teens openly talk about their drinking exploits, and refusing to hold other adults and youth accountable for breaking the law. They argue, as have the National Academies' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine in their report Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, that not until all segments of society recognize underage alcohol use for the public health problem it is will we make significant headway in solving it. Among the remedial approaches it recommends is more enforcement of laws pertaining to zero tolerance, minor in possession, drinking and driving, and public intoxication for those underage.

The Spin Room

In most debates, the side with the better backstory often wins. This debate is no different. Who's saying what in the spin room? McCardell points the finger squarely in the face of those who support current MLDA laws (telling US News and World Report, for example, "If you infantilize people, you can't profess astonishment when you see infantile behavior") while his Amethyst Initiative maintains that preaching abstinence is unrealistic and counterproductive. As Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College and an Amethyst supporter, says, "We know that twenty-one simply isn't working . . . . At my college, more than 70 percent of our students are under age, but we find ourselves unable to educate them effectively about drinking . . . . There must be a better way . . . ."

On that point, both sides can agree.

Proponents of maintaining the MLDA point to community-based approaches that have realized success at a number of academic institutions, including the University of Rhode Island, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, moved aggressively to crack down on underage drinking, and the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which realized a drop in high-risk drinking among first-year college students from 61 percent in 2005 to 43 percent in 2007.

Some also point back at McCardell and his followers, suggesting this is more an issue of convenience than conviction. As Harvard's Henry Wechsler told MSNBC, "It's a nuisance to them, [but] I wish these college presidents sat around and tried to work out ways to deal with the problem on their campus rather than try to eliminate [it] by defining it out of existence."

Wherever this debate ends up, the rhetorical journey is worth the price of admission if it attracts an audience willing to learn the science and the statistics, sort out fallacies from fact, and offer approaches proven effective in keeping young people safe and alive.

Fallacies and Facts 

Many people grew up when the drinking age was eighteen, and they handled it OK. 
In fact, the statistics don't support this idea. One of the reasons the minimum legal drinking age was moved from eighteen to twenty-one is because states that lowered their drinking ages experienced increases in youth fatalities. When those states moved the age up again to twenty-one, fatalities significantly decreased. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the minimum legal drinking age of twenty-one has saved more than 25,000 lives since 1975.

European countries with lower drinking ages don't have these problems. 
Actually, in all European countries except Turkey, the rate of binge drinking among young people is higher than the rate in the U.S. Six years ago New Zealand lowered the minimum legal drinking age to eighteen. Since then, alcohol-related crashes have increased by 12 percent among eighteen- to nineteen-year-olds and 14 percent among fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds. New Zealand is considering increasing the minimum legal drinking age again.

If young people are old enough to fight and die for their country and mature enough to vote, they are responsible enough to drink. 
According to Evan Hoapili, Colonel, USAF (ret), "Military service does not transform your liver, blood, or brain. Military leadership has seen the clear and dangerous effects of alcohol on morale, readiness, combat effectiveness, and more. They know from firsthand experience that alcohol hinders the physical and mental preparation and sustained readiness for future combat, and it has absolutely no place in actual combat operations. And it works against the ability of leaders, families, and health care providers to support those recovering from post-combat injuries and stress."

If we teach young people to drink at home during high school, we can be sure they are being responsible and safe.
Young people who drink at home are significantly more likely to drink with their friends. For example, among high school teens, those who tend to avoid alcohol are more than twice as likely as those who repeatedly use alcohol to say their parents never let them drink at home (84 percent versus 40 percent). Also, more than half (57 percent) of high school teens who report their parents allow them to drink at home, even just on special occasions, say they drink with their friends, as compared to just 14 percent of teens who say their parents don't let them drink.

Stephen Wallace, M.S. Ed., author of the new book Reality Gap: Alcohol, Drugs, and Sex — What Parents Don't Know and Teens Aren't Telling, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent counselor. He serves as chairman and CEO of SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, and adjunct professor of psychology at Mount Ida College. For more information about Wallace's work, visit www.stephengraywallace.com.

© Summit Communications Management Corporation 2009 All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the 2009 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.