An anonymous letter to CR

We were recently contacted by a gentleman whose perspective demonstrates incredible purpose, sympathy and logic. He wrote the following letter, asking to be anonymous:

Another Fall in America and another 18-year-old fraternity pledge dies of alcohol poisoning. Nolan Burch, a freshman at West Virginia University, died this past month in the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. A candlelight vigil has taken place, and a charitable foundation will likely be established in Mr. Burch’s name.

I feel the pain. I was a Kappa Sigma. My brother’s friend Gordie Bailey died of alcohol poisoning as an 18-year-old fraternity pledge at the University of Colorado. Much like Gordie’s passing, Nolan’s family and friends have proclaimed what a joyful person he was, and how they couldn’t believe such a thing happened to him. Many specific questions will be asked; rightfully so. However, the larger community – college leaders, parents, college students, politicians – has to ask some tough questions more broadly.

What are we doing wrong? Why is underage alcohol use increasing, even when public health education has drastically increased in the recent past? Why are Millenials literally killing themselves in their 20’s with alcohol? This didn’t happen to Baby Boomers.

Policy-making isn’t always purely intuitive. In fact, it’s often not. Could banning alcohol actually be worse for public health than not doing so? Absolutely. Just ask none other than West Virginia University administrators. When West Virginia began selling alcohol at football games, they saw alcohol arrests drastically decrease. How could that be? The best way to explain this phenomenon is the term “pre-gaming;” Millennials are quite familiar.

Because most college students are too young to drink legally at bars (or, in this case, that fans weren’t previously able to purchase alcohol in the stadium), they drink to excess prior to entry. 18-20 year-old’s routinely “pre-game” before going to parties and bars on college campuses across the country. Okay, but is this behavior any different than parents of Millenials’, the Baby Boomers? You bet.

Here’s one reason why: The youngest Baby Boomers went to college in the early 1980’s. Something else eerily related occurred in the early 1980’s. Almost every state raised its minimum legal drinking age to 21. The Federal government gave the states an ultimatum: raise your drinking age to 21 or lose 10% of your Federal highway funding. Louisiana didn’t technically comply until 1995, and many blame crumbling infrastructure in the state on its hold out against this law.

Perhaps we should rethink the drinking age of 21. Many college presidents – 136 to be precise – already have, by signing the Amethyst Initiative. According to its website, “Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”

When it becomes legal for young people to drive an automobile, they receive extensive training and advice, gradually assuming more-and-more responsibility. On their 16th birthday, kids leave the house in the car alone for the first time, but confident in their ability after months of instruction. When the same young women and men turn 21, having been legally adults for a few years and away from their parents at college, they seek out a party environment as far away from authority as possible. Ironically, they often blatantly abuse the privilege they have only legally held for hours. Of course, many students have years of illegal practice, which may or may not have been condoned to a degree by their parents.

Should we employ the same level of strategy to educating drinkers as we do drivers? It would be easier to accomplish when living in their parents’ homes as 18-year-old’s, rather than hundreds of miles away as 21-year-old’s.

Notwithstanding, if an individual is trusted with an election ballot or with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in the Middle East, surely they should be able to decide between Coca-Cola or Miller Lite.

-Anonymous

A Response to “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking”

In response to the one-sided article entitled “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking” in the December 2 issue of the Chronicle of Education’s online edition, John M. McCardell and Barrett Seaman, CR’s former and current presidents, have submitted a response:

We could begin this article with exactly the first three paragraphs used in
Tuesday’s edition of the daily Chronicle by Beth McMurtrie (Why Colleges Haven’t
Stopped Binge Drinking) in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s online edition, Dec. 2,
2014 and yet arrive at a starkly different conclusion.

It is indisputable that “[D]espite decades of research, hundreds of campus task
forces, and millions invested in bold experiments, college drinking remains as much of a
problem as ever…,” that “[T]he binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered
above 40 percent for two decades, and signs are that partying is getting even harder.
More students now drink to get drunk, choose hard liquor over beer, and front-load, or
drink in advance of social events. For many the goal is to black out.”

To then suggest, however, that the reason for the failure of the current approach to
binge drinking is that college administrators are wasting their time trying to educate
students about the dangers of alcohol and that they should instead simply enforce the
national minimum 21-year-old drinking age is to ignore a fundamental flaw: twenty-one
doesn’t work.

Ask Deans of Students, as one of us did in researching a book about college life
(Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess, John Wiley & Sons, 2005),
and the vast majority will say the legal drinking age is a hindrance in their efforts to curb
dangerous drinking on their campuses. More than 130 college and university presidents
signed The Amethyst Initiative in 2008, saying that 21 doesn’t work and that the country
needs to re-open the debate about how best to deal with the drinking problem.

Some institutions, including Indiana University at Bloomington and the
University of Oklahoma, have in the past tried to crack down by enforcing the age limit
only to find that their hard line simply drove the drinking further underground, into dorm
rooms and off-campus apartments—away from low-alcohol beer to shots of hard liquor,
because it’s easier to hide and produces more “bang for the buck.” The nation as a whole
tried this approach in the 1920s; Prohibition too ended up fostering a culture of defiance
and dissolute behavior (not to mention the Mafia).

Passage of Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21 (MLDA21) in 1984 was the
federal government’s sole response to a campaign against drunk driving launched by
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). It pinned the blame for a nationwide problem
affecting all age groups on one cohort, those between 18 (the legal age of majority in
virtually all other aspects of American citizenship) and 21, which just happened to cover
roughly three-quarters of the student population of colleges and universities. Alcohol-
related highway fatalities (which had started to drop two years before passage of the law)
did indeed fall…until the early nineties, when the leveled out at about 13% below what
they had been in 1984.

Interestingly, in neighboring Canada during roughly the same period, there was
also a significant decrease in alcohol-related highway fatalities; only the Canadians made
no changes in their drinking age, which has been 19 in most provinces, 18 in Quebec.
Ask American students who have studied abroad in countries where the drinking age is
18 and sometimes lower, and chances are they will tell you the drinking behaviors of
their peers in these countries were far more civilized than back home. It is noteworthy
that the U.S. is one of only five nations on the planet with a drinking age as high as 21.
So what would work? We believe that the first step is to repeal the enforcement
provision of the 1984 law that forces states that don’t maintain MLDA21 to forfeit 10%
of their federal highway funds. Let the states decide for themselves. Many, if not most,
would revert to 18, which is consistent with the majority status for voting, joining the
military, serving on juries and enjoying the protection of one’s privacy (among many
other privileges and responsibilities of citizenship).

Second, we believe that education does work; indeed, to earn the privilege of
buying and consuming alcohol, 18-year-olds should be required to take a course, not
unlike driver’s ed, that instills a respect for the limits of consumption and for the law.
Education programs would help in this respect all the way back to the eighth grade level,
when, research tells us, youths are often first introduced to alcohol.

Current law assumes, nobly yet naively, that a young person will abstain from
alcohol until the 21st birthday, and on that day rise prepared to make responsible decisions
about alcohol. Perhaps we ought to take the same approach when it comes to operating an
automobile: simply hand over the keys when a young person reaches legal driving age,
relying on law enforcement to arrest inexperienced, errant drivers.
State licensing would have an ancillary benefit: it would provide a means for
bartenders and liquor store proprietors to prevent out-of-state 18-21-year-olds from
crossing over the border to buy alcohol. These so-called “blood borders” between states
with different age limits were a big reason why young people were dying on the roads
prior to 1984.

Thirdly, we believe that enforcement does have a place: Drivers should be held
accountable to blood alcohol content (BAC) limits; indeed a limit of 0.06% BAC is an
appropriate standard. Moreover, conviction for DUI should be meaningful—requiring
license suspension or revocation, even jail time for egregious offenses. Studies suggest
that these policies are far more likely to reduce drunk driving than MLDA21.
Finally, no one favors drunken driving. The surest way to take drunks off the road
is to mandate ignition interlocks, certainly for first-time offenders of any age, possibly for
all drivers under the age of 21.

As for the argument that reducing the drinking age to 18 would only invite
younger teenagers to drink, consider the incentive a permit would create: if you observe
the alcohol laws of the issuing state until age 18, you earn the privilege; if you don’t, you
wait until 21. here again, enforcement has a role: with a clear, bright line separating those
who are of majority age, with all its responsibilities and privileges, from those who are by
every measure still children. Enforcement at these younger ages falls to school officials
and, most importantly, parents.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities would be able to deal openly with alcohol.
Student parties with alcohol could become public again; the need to “pre-game” with
shots before social events would disappear. Professors could legally have a beer with
students after class and, hopefully, demonstrate that responsible adults don’t drink to get
drunk. Those who abuse alcohol, and there always will be some, will be more readily
identifiable and guided to treatment.

All this won’t happen overnight. We have allowed several generations of young
people to learn bad habits that have become ingrained in campus life. But until we
recognize that MLDA is part of the problem—and not the solution—we will continue to
read about the “college binge drinking crisis” and its apparent intractability.
–by Dr. John M. McCardell and Barrett Seaman

John M. McCardell is vice chancellor of Sewanee, the University of the South, former
president of Middlebury College and the founding president of Choose Responsibility, a
non-profit devoted to re-opening the national debate about drinking age laws. Barrett
Seaman is a former TIME Magazine journalist, author of Binge: Campus Life in an
Age of Disconnection and Excess, and current president of Choose Responsibility

North Dakota House candidate and a citation for underage drinking

The discussion on the drinking age in the United States crossed an often overlooked barrier in 2012, as exhibited through a incident with University of North Dakota student, John Mitzel.

Mitzel, 19, ran for a position in the House of Representatives (R. North Dakota) and was cited for underage drinking during his campaign. Proponents of a reduction in the drinking age rarely cite that one gains the right to run for political office before the right to consume alcohol. Is it a safe assumption that an individual entrusted to make decisions on behalf of the state can effectively control his or her consumption of alcohol? Mitzel continued to run, stating that “it will not cloud my ability to serve in the legislature” (see link below).

While Mitzel won the Republican primary, he lost in the general election. Read more about Mitzel’s campaign here.

New study emphasizes adult influence on underage drinking

A recent California study has shown that communities where social host laws are more stringent have demonstrated more responsible underage contingents.

This may not come as a surprise, though it has implications when thought of in the context of role-modeling. Adults who discourage binge drinking in their presence, yet encourage responsible drinking in responsible settings, help to promote positive habits for minors. This behavior may be encouraged by these new social host laws.

Lead researcher Mallie J. Paschall claimed that ‘”Most kids get alcohol from social sources, not commercial ones,” so laws that target the social-sources of alcohol, such as parents or adult caretakers, can help reduce underage drinking.’

To read more, click here

Students initiate alcohol policy at Haverford College

In an effort to create a greater sense of safety, unity and consistency, Haverford College, outside Philadelphia, PA, has gone about its alcohol policy from a different angle: each year, the students vote on the school’s alcohol policies in order to make sure they are consistent with community expectations. What’s the result of this? Student loyalty, safety and support.

Indeed, there are administrators on the panel that reviews these policies, but students seem to have a strong influence on the regulatory environment.

As the article notes, “The relationship between students and security at Haverford is a key reason why, according to Pavliv, students feel safe notifying campus safety officers.” Such respected collaboration in a college community may be worth a thought or two.

Read more here

NPR addresses the connection between cheap drinks, risk and binge-drinking

Binge drinking has become an assumed part of the college experience– with this in mind, NPR looks into the factors that contribute to such pressures, primarily cheap drinks. This point becomes more of a reality when one considers that after graduation, many graduates tend to upgrade their taste in beer–from those marketed to binge-drinkers to those marketed to beer connoisseurs. In this NPR conversation, cooperation between a college and the nearby community in regards to pricing and legal consistency has proven to lower the pressures of binge-drinking.

Listen to (or read) NPR’s discussion here

CR president Barrett Seaman featured on The Sound of Ideas

Fully a decade after Choose Responsibility founder John McCardell argued in a New York Times oped piece that the 21-year-old drinking age was counterproductive, another small college president, Tom Chema of Ohio’s Hiram College, made the same point on WCPM Radio, arguing that the age prohibition does nothing to stop binge drinking and indeed contributes to it. The law, he said, “is just not working.”

CR president Barrett Seaman, participating in the same radio debate, asked whether or not MLDA-21 was the best way to curb drunk driving deaths, which was its original intent. Buried in some of the research that purportedly supported the higher drinking age law is data that suggests that stiffer enforcement of existing drunk driving laws for all age groups is far more effective and ought to be the focus of the law, rather than an age-specific ban on drinking.

Most of those who called into the show supported a lower age limit.

Listen to (or watch) the discussion here

30 years after its signing, CNN highlights the MLDA discussion

John McCardell speaks with CNN regarding the benefits of providing a responsible drinking environment. Currently, underage drinking “is taking place behind closed doors, where it’s much more dangerous. It’s unsupervised,” [McCardell] said. “It’s out of step with social reality.”

In its 30th year of existence, CNN summarizes the debate on the legal drinking age here

The article compares the drinking regulations and culture in the U.S. with those of often-cited European countries, from early childhood to college-age drinking, and addresses the validity of the “forbidden fruit” argument, among other related topics.

How is today’s discussion different from the one held in 1984?

CR President on HuffPost Live!

Choose Responsibility President Barrett Seaman recently participated in a HuffPost Live conversation on the legal blood alcohol limit in the United States. The conversation, consisting of Seaman, Deanna Russo (Executive Director at Crusade Against Impaired Driving); John Celock (HuffPost State Government Reporter); J.T. Griffin (Senior VP for Public Policy at MADD); and Dr. Barron H. Lerner (Associate Professor, College of Physicians and Surgeons), questioned whether or not .08 is an appropriate BAC level.

CR holds the belief that lowering the BAC and more stringently enforcing the law is a better approach to saving lives that a heightened BAC.

View the entire interview here, and let us know what you think.

Washington bill will allow tasting in classes for teens

Washington senators are advancing a proposal that would allow older teenagers to taste alcohol in culinary, beer technology, or similar community college classes. If passed, the bill will enable 18-20 year olds to better understand their course work by responsibly (and under supervision) tasting (though they are not supposed to consume) alcohol.

Though the bill’s intent is to enhance the educational experience of these students and better prepare them for their careers, it has the potential to indirectly promote responsibility by removing the mystique surrounding alcohol for under age drinkers.