A number of respected academic leaders in Maryland believe the legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18, to help confront what they describe as a hidden crisis in binge drinking among students. But they offer no convincing evidence that lowering the drinking age would reduce excessive alcohol use by college students.
What we do know is that since 1984, when Congress effectively raised the national drinking age to 21, the number of young drivers charged with drunken driving has declined significantly, as has the number of alcohol-related highway deaths. That persuades us that the legal drinking age of 21 has been an effective deterrent to youthful problem drinking and should remain in place.
University and college leaders are right to be concerned. They confront the effects of underage drinking on their campuses every semester. About 5,000 people under 21 die each year as a result of underage drinking, and thousands more suffer from alcohol-related sexual assaults, violence and injuries, a recent study by the U.S. Surgeon General indicates. Schools must be serious about enforcing the drinking laws - and make it clear to their students. Students as well as fraternities and other groups that violate them should face mandatory counseling sessions and tough administrative penalties. The school leaders' concern that drinking by students can't be discussed because drinking on campus is illegal seems a facile dodge. If past is prologue, legal drinking on campus has never been a successful antidote for binge drinking among students.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has been extraordinarily successful in attacking the larger social problem of drunken driving, convincing the public and police that tough laws, strictly enforced, can reduce its tragic consequences. MADD leaders call college binge drinking the result of a perfect storm of affluence, opportunity and tolerance on campuses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that raising the cost and limiting the availability of alcohol in a given area can help control binge drinking. It's a problem that afflicts adults as well as students, and a broader public awareness campaign would be helpful. But for now, academic leaders should ask themselves if they are doing everything possible to warn students about the potential consequences of binge drinking and to guard them from its dangers.