Drinks at 18? Facts show it's a bad idea

The college presidents are right about teen drinking. At least, they're right about this part: It's time to look in a clear-eyed way at underage drinking.

You may have heard, a bit incorrectly, that more than 100 college and university presidents, including Duke University's Richard Brodhead, signed a statement to lower the legal drinking age. In fact what they signed was a statement saying, in part, “It's time to rethink the drinking age. … Twenty-one is not working … A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking' – often conducted off-campus – has developed.”

The statement does not specifically call for a lower drinking age. But the founder of the Amethyst Initiative – www.amethystinitiative.org – is former Middlebury College President John McCardell, an advocate of lowering the age to 18.

Consider the statement a cry for help from college presidents who confront dangerous, even life-threatening binge drinking among far too many students who should know better.

The binge drinking is real. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that in a 2005 survey, 29 percent of 12th graders said they had engaged in binge drinking within the past two weeks, as had 22 percent of 10th graders.

Mr. McCardell's point is that decriminalizing drinking for 18- to 20-year-olds would bring it out of hiding, so could monitor it. Also, it's hard to ignore some absurdity in allowing 18-year-olds to vote, sign contracts, serve on juries and enlist in the military – but not buy a beer.

The problem is that evidence shows raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the 1970s and 1980s has saved thousands of lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that since 1976 the higher drinking age has prevented more than 21,000 traffic deaths. When New Zealand lowered its legal drinking age to 18, alcohol-related crashes rose 12 to 14 percent among 15- to 19-year-olds.

Younger drinkers are more likely to do things that hurt themselves or others. They are more likely to become alcohol-dependent at some point in their lives.

Further, a look at research data shows less binge drinking now than in the 1980s.

Those facts can't be wished away, even though college presidents are correct that hidden binge drinking is a troubling reality on many campuses.

How, then, can the country best address unhealthy drinking among 18- to 20-year-olds? Rather than reflexively lowering the drinking age, other measures should be tried:

Raise alcohol prices and taxes. Research shows higher prices or taxes are associated with less drinking, especially among young people.

Provide more alcohol treatment tailored for adolescents. Much of the treatment available – and not enough is – isn't.

Provide more community- and family-based programs. A variety of programs have been effective. They involve families, schools and peers to teach young people about alcohol's dangers.

The college presidents did the country a favor by raising the issue. Now, let some clear-eyed discussion begin.