A few prominent college administrators want to reopen the debate about the legal drinking age, collectively calling their effort the Amethyst Initiative. Almost a hundred college presidents have announced that they want the drinking age changed from 21 to 18:
College chiefs urge new debate on drinking age
Before I weigh in, I wanted to nitpick a tiny bit about the statistics involved. The article reports that “A recent Associated Press analysis of federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.” Come on, Associated Press, you can do better than that. We all know that statistics can be manipulated to prove a point, but we expect at least a comparison to “control” figures.
It’s possible that statistics might only have been available for the entire age 18-23 grouping. But probably not. Whenever alcohol is involved it’s common for law enforcement to at least record ages in categories “under 18″, “18-20″, “over 21″. Using the age group 18-23 tells nothing about how likely it is that the actual victims were under the legal drinking age of 21.
Second, what’s the rate of alcohol-induced death in the general population? Certainly, 157 deaths is 157 too many. Every single one of these cases is a tragedy. But how many 24- to 29-year-olds “drank themselves to death”? Octogenarians? The number is meaningless without context.
What’s even meant by “drinking to death” anyway? Does this include alcohol-related suicide? The numbers are too low to include drunk-driving figures (I’m assuming). But to me there’s a huge difference between a hazed fraternity pledge and a depressed teenager who intentionally mixes alcohol with sleeping pills.
I don’t expect all of these questions answered (or even touched on) in a thousand-word article. But a little context would be nice so that those of us who actually think critically can do so.
How do I feel on the issue at hand? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m not so naïve to think that lowering the drinking age will reduce drinking. Certainly it won’t raise the incidence of drinking that much — go to a college campus and wander around on a Saturday night. It won’t take you long to find a stumbling undergrad wandering around.
Studies would have to be done to find the true effect of lowering the drinking age. My position’s actually pretty simple — if lowering the drinking age results in fewer fatalities, I’m all for it. Hangovers are recoverable. Death is not.
My hunch is that legalizing drinking at 18 will bring parties into the open rather than pushing them underground into fraternity houses and darkened dorm rooms. Will it make 18- to 20-year-old drinking more or less prevalent? Considering that pretty much anyone (of any age) who wants a drink can find one, I wouldn’t think the rate of alcohol consumption would change very much.
Would changing the drinking age result in higher rates of drunk driving? Who knows. Possibly, but from the number of beer and hard liquor bottles I find dropped from cars onto my lawn, I can’t imagine that drunk driving would get markedly worse either.
Ultimately, I believe in personal responsibility. Alcohol exists and as a society we’ve decided that its benefits outweigh its hazards. (Or, at least that the beverage industry has really good lobbyists.) Drunk driving should be heavily prosecuted, especially for exceptional cases (BAC greater than 0.15). Eighteen is old enough for a kid to go to war and shoot someone. The fact that this scenario only becomes a crime if he’s holding a can of Bud Light says a great deal about our priorities.