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Outside editorial: The right age for drinking isn't 18

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008

College officials who have signed on to the provocative proposition that the legal drinking age of 21 isn't working say that they just want to start a debate. Perhaps when they get done with that, they can move on to whether Earth really orbits the sun. Any suggestion that the current drinking age hasn't saved lives runs counter to the facts.

More than 100 presidents and chancellors from such top universities as Duke and Johns Hopkins say it's time to rethink the drinking age, contending it has caused "a culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking.' " The statement does not specifically advocate reducing the drinking age, but many who signed it say they thought legal drinking should begin at 18.

Health and safety experts have reacted with dismay, because raising the drinking age has saved many lives. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 49 studies published in scientific journals and concluded that alcohol-related traffic crashes involving young people increased 10 percent when the drinking age was lowered in the 1970s and decreased 16 percent when the drinking age was raised. The retreat from a lower drinking age translates into some 900 lives saved each year among 16 to 20 year olds. Those who would argue that other factors, such as safer cars, are responsible should take a good look at numbers posted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving showing alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 16 to 20 year olds decreasing 60 percent between 1982 and 2006 while non-alcohol-related fatalities increased 34 percent.

The college presidents are right about binge drinking. Each year, some 1,700 college students die from causes related to alcohol use; there is also the toll of injuries and sexual assaults fueled by alcohol. But where is the logic of solving the underage drinking problem by lowering the age even more? Henry Wechsler, the Harvard expert whose studies of binge drinking popularized the phrase, put it best, comparing lowering the drinking age to "pouring gasoline to put the fire out."

Work by experts such as Mr. Wechsler, as well as the experience of college officials committed to solutions, shows that strong steps to enforce the law and change the culture can produce results. Instead of talking about lowering the drinking age (and thereby shifting the problem to high schools), colleges should be working to develop better enforcement methods, expand education and counseling, and end pricing practices that make alcohol more accessible and attractive. Then, too, college officials can stop winking at fraternity bashes that, whether they are willing to admit it or not, add to the allure of going off to college.



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