February 19, 2007
Why 21?

John M. McCardell Jr. used to be the president of Middlebury College. He believes that current law that restricts drinking to those 21 and over is bad social policy, and he intends to prove it.

With backing from the Robertson Foundation, he has created a nonprofit group, Choose Responsibility, that will seek to promote a national discussion of alternatives to the 21-year-old drinking age. The group is preparing a Web site with studies that challenge conventional wisdom about the advantages of the law, while explaining its flaws. The group will also push an idea -- floated without success in the 1990s by Roderic Park, then chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder -- to allow 18-20-year-olds who complete an alcohol education program to obtain "drinking licenses." And McCardell and others plan to start speaking out, writing more op-eds, and trying to redefine the issue.

The current law, McCardell said in an interview Thursday, is a failure that forces college freshmen to hide their drinking -- while colleges must simultaneously pretend that they have fixed students' drinking problems and that students aren't drinking. McCardell also argued that the law, by making it impossible for a 19-year-old to enjoy two beers over pizza in a restaurant, leads those 19-year-olds to consume instead in closed dorm rooms and fraternity basements where 2 beers are more likely to turn into 10, and no responsible person may be around to offer help or to stop someone from drinking too much.

Any college president who thinks his or her campus has drinking under control is "delusional," McCardell said, although he acknowledged the political pressures that prevent most sitting presidents from providing an honest assessment of what's going on on their campuses. But he said that the dangers to students and institutions are great enough that it's time for someone to start speaking out. While he was president at Middlebury, one of his students died, a 21-year-old who was driving after drinking way too much.

When I started college, the drinking age in Texas was 19. (It was 21 in my home state of New York.) It went up to 21 on September 1, 1986, which was a little less than six months before I turned 21, so I went from being a legal drinker for a year and a half to a potential minor-in-possession charge for six months. I've never been convinced that there's anything magical about being 21. And it seems that McCardell has found there's little empirical evidence to support that.

What was striking about the research, McCardell said, was how little of it conclusively backs up claims about the positive impact of the 21-year-old drinking age. "This is by definition a very emotional issue, but what we need is an informed and dispassionate debate," he said. He said that the major flaw in analyses to date has been false assumptions about causal relationships. If DWI accidents among teens have dropped, that must be because of the rise in the drinking age, proponents say.

But McCardell noted that a range of other factors could be at play, too -- such as changing attitudes about seat belts, the availability of airbags, etc. At the same time, those who see a causal relationship in one set of statistics ignore others -- showing continued drinking by college students (under 21) and substantial evidence of truly dangerous drinking by a subset of that population.

"Data are data," McCardell said. "Facts are stubborn things."

The factors cited above would not have any effect on teenage DWI rates, but a couple of decades' worth of pervasive anti-DWI messaging might. I'd like to know if you can separate out an effect from the overall societal drop in drunk driving from that in the 18-21 age group. It would not surprise me to learn that there's not much evidence to suggest that the higher drinking age has any measurable effect.

Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Research Center, at Northern Illinois University, said that while large majorities of Americans have reported being concerned about underage drinking, focus groups have found that this view is a nuanced one. When Americans say that they oppose underage drinking, they are thinking of high schools and middle schools, Haines said, not "a 19-year-old who is married and working full time, a 20-year-old in the military, or a 19-year-old in college."

I think this is a key point. I think there's a bigger difference between 16 and 18 than there is between 19 and 21, and I think most people would agree with that. As I recall, the rationale for lowering the voting age to 18 back in the 70s was that kids serving in Vietnam deserved the right to vote. Maybe that same logic could be used today for alcohol.

Anyway, it's a thought-provoking read, so take a look and see what you think. Link via Chad Orzel.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 19, 2007 to Society and cultcha

To me it has never made any sense that a person may be drafted into military service and has the right of suffrage but may not partake in enjoying alcohol. It's just completely illogical and arbitrary.

Posted by: Patrick on February 19, 2007 8:38 AM