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Legal drinking age debated at Fairfield University forum

Published 1:07 am, Friday, January 29, 2010
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As students began to file into the campus center at Fairfield University for a debate on the controversial subject of whether the legal drinking age should be lowered to 18, one student made his opinion abundantly clear.

"Drink!" he shouted, as he walked passed the gathering crowd.

"That's inappropriate," jokingly retorted another student.

Arguing in favor of lowering the drinking age was John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and first signer of the Amethyst Initiative. The initiative consists of chancellors and presidents of universities across the nation who have pledged their support to lower the legal drinking age. Fairfield University president Rev. Jeffrey von Arx is one of 135 people who have signed their support.

In favor of keeping the drinking age at 21 was James Fell, senior program director of the alcohol, policy and safety research center at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and a former member of the executive board of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

The viewpoints stood in stark contrast. The statistics presented also seemed conflicted at times. The underlying goal of the two people, however, was the same.

"Genuinely, [McCardell's] goal is to reduce the abuse of drinking in young people and that's my goal, too," Fell said. "We just have different strategies on how to do that."

Armed with a bevy of statistics, Fell showed that the number of alcohol-related fatalities among young people has dropped dramatically since 1984, when states began adopting 21 as the legal drinking age. Meanwhile, he said, instances of underage binge drinking have remained about the same over the years.

"The science tells us [the drinking age] has been effective," Fell said. "The research shows when the drinking age is lowered, alcohol-related problems increase. Raising the drinking age reduces those problems. Does it eliminate underage drinking? No. Do drunk driving laws eliminate drunk driving? No. They reduce drunk driving."

McCardell's belief is that the debate on the drinking age has been stifled by federal guidelines. States are technically allowed to change the drinking age, but doing so means forgoing millions in federal highway funds.

"The national drinking age, if you want to call it that, is embedded in a transportation bill," McCardell said. "It's a reminder that it is 1984 still and it will always be 1984, and try as you may to address the problems of today, you're always going to be pulled back."

One of the main problems in 2010, according to McCardell, is not drunk driving. It's actually binge drinking by underage people, and his statistics demonstrated an increase in this category. He said drinking is forced into secluded locations, and underage people often drink more than anyone who is of age and can go to a bar, and frequently at a much quicker pace. In essence, McCardell said, it's a "well-intended law which fosters abhorrent behavior."

"Must we wait for 60 peer-reviewed studies funded by foundations ... who have already made up their minds to tell us what anybody who has spent 24 hours on a college campus can discover with his or her own two eyes?" asked McCardell. "The law has driven drinking from public places and public view and it has not significantly diminished drinking."

McCardell acknowledged that instances of drunk driving have diminished, but he said the reason isn't because of the change in the drinking age. Rather, the perception about drunk driving has changed from an act which was once acceptable to something which now is not.

"The attitudes toward drinking and driving have changed, and the many ways in which we have effected a cultural change on that subject," McCardell said. "That's important. That's good news."

One statistic that Fell used when arguing in support of the drinking age was "trickle-down" effects from European countries, where the drinking age is lower than 21. He said a majority of European countries had higher rates of 15- and 16-year-olds becoming intoxicated than in the U.S.

"The European culture of responsible drinking is a myth," Fell said. "They have lower drinking ages. They have bigger problems."

One of the ways that McCardell believes underage binge drinking problems can be reduced is through education and parental involvement. He posed a question to the audience.

"Is the problem the drink or is the problem the drinker?" he asked, rhetorically.

Claire Tully, 21, believes the drinking age should stay at 21 due to the potential problem of a trickle-down effect in which more 16-year-olds would indulge in alcohol.

"I liked seeing both sides," she said. "I'm on the `keep it at 21 [side]', but this kind of broadened my horizons."

Her friend, Sarah Marcoux, 19, thinks a little differently. She is from Milwaukee, Wisc., arguably the beer capital of the country and a place where teens can legally drink with supervision from their parents. For her, having the drinking age at 18 is a bit too early, while at 21 it's a bit too high.

"I like the idea of 19, and not because I am 19 but because I worry about the trickle-down [effect]," Marcoux said.

Opinions differed throughout the night, whether by the speakers or the students. The conflicting statistics presented, often from differing sources, each demonstrated the arguing points of both sides.

"Not all the evidence is on one side of the question," Fell acknowledged.