Bid by College Presidents to Lower the Drinking Age Remains a Long Shot

Binge drinking may be worsening on campus, but the British experience is a cautionary tale.

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College students had yet another reason to celebrate last week when a group of more than 100 university presidents—including leaders of prestigious institutions such as Duke, Dartmouth, and Ohio State—made a dramatic proposal to lower the legal age for drinking alcohol from 21 to 18. But the proposal would have to overcome many obstacles, not least of which is the British experience, where an 18-year-old drinking age has done little to stymie an expanding binge-drinking culture.

Those backing the effort to revisit the U.S. drinking age, led by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, argue that the 21-year-old drinking age has had disastrous, unintended consequences on college campuses, giving rise to an unhealthy culture of dangerous binge drinking.

The proposal to lower the age drew a predictably negative response from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the organization that pushed Congress to raise the drinking age in 1984. Health experts and transportation officials piled on, saying that the law had saved more than 21,000 lives on the roads since it was passed.

But the college presidents say binge drinking has become a significant health issue on their campuses. Nearly half of college students, no matter their age, say they binge drink—defined as five more drinks in a sitting for men and four for women—at least once every two weeks. One in five male freshmen say they regularly drink more than 10 drinks at a time.

"It's a very serious problem on college campuses, and it just seems to get worse and worse," says William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Dozens of students are admitted to university hospitals each year with alcohol poisoning, and 1,700 people between the ages of 18 and 24 die every year from alcohol-related injuries.

McCardell and others have pointed to Europe, where legal drinking ages tend to be 18 or younger, as an example of how policy changes can build healthier drinking cultures. "Prohibition doesn't work," McCardell said in a recent interview. "Why not make it available earlier as a way of preparing young people to deal with alcohol responsibly?"

In some countries, of course, this is true. A World Health Organization study in 2003 found that southern European teens, in particular, do seem to drink more responsibly than Americans. Italian and Greek teenagers drink more days per month than teens do here, but they tend to drink far less each time.

In countries where parents introduce teens to alcohol and model how to drink it, drunkenness occurs in only 1 of every 10 drinking occasions. In the United States, where teenagers usually learn to drink from their peers, drunkenness ensues about half the time.

There is at least one glaring exception to this European rule, though—one many experts believe will ultimately torpedo any effort to change the American drinking age. Britain, like its European neighbors, has a legal drinking age of 18. But not only is the country's teenage binge-drinking problem eerily similar to the one in America, the drinking is done by much younger kids. A recent study by the Center for Public Health at John Moores University in Liverpool found that nearly 90 percent of British teenagers say they have tried alcohol.

More freedom, it seems, has failed to breed more responsible drinking. A British government study published earlier this year found British teens are drinking to get drunk at ever younger ages. Four in 10 say they began drinking when 13 or younger.

Though British teens aren't driven into dangerous drinking environments by the same "forbidden fruit" mentality as Americans, they don't seem to behave much better. Nearly 40 percent said they drink up to 20 alcohol drinks per week. Half the young people surveyed said drinking had caused them to get involved in fights, and 1 in 4 said binge drinking had led to encounters with the police.

The British experience may not provide much comfort to those who want to lower the drinking age in the United States, but it does seem to offer some guidance. The authors of the John Moores study found that British teens who first started drinking alcohol in a controlled environment with parental or adult supervision—a glass of wine with dinner, for example—are much less likely to learn their drinking habits on benders with their friends at the local pub. Those teens, the authors found, were significantly less likely to suffer the negative consequences of binge drinking.