Friday, August 22, 2008

Lower The Drinking Age

On Thursday, the Washington Post ran an article that indicated that some college Presidents are pushing Congress to reconsider the drinking age and open debate on the subject. But, if you are going to disagree with 119 college and university Presidents, you should probably have a good reason; you can read their reasons here. Mothers Against Drunk Driving ("MADD") disagree and you can read their reasons here - it is pretty much the text-book on why the drinking age is what it is. (a quick aside: the MADD site proclaims that the 21 drinking age is estimated to have "saved" 25,000 lives since 1984; a) how is it even possible to calculate this number??? and b) only 25,000? in 24 years? That's 1,000 per year. How many lives and how much property damage could have been saved if we concentrated on responsible teaching of the effects of alcohol and discouraged binge drinking behind closed doors?) The only-slightly-more-sane Chicago-Tribune also disagrees.

The University of Wisconsin received an invitation to join the Amethyst Initiative (the organization under which all of the schools have come together), but because of the imminent change in leadership the school has decided that now is not the best time to make an institutional commitment. In the coming weeks this issue will be considered by the new Chancellor.

In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin system has a number of programs in place to educate students on responsible alcohol consumption. Among those programs is the UW-Madison PACE program. P.A.C.E. stands for the four objectives underlying its purposes: policy, alternatives, community, and education. The PACE program uses each of these pillars to support its underlying mission to ensure that its students are safe and aware of the dangers of high-risk drinking behaviors.

According to PACE Program Director Susan Crowley, "Before students arrive on the campus we discuss ways to prevent high-risk drinking with their parents and students during the summer orientation sessions. As soon as students move to campus to begin the academic year, they participate in discussions with residence hall staff, UW Police, Dean of Students and University Health Services regarding the implications of underage or excessive drinking. In addition to discussions, students are provided with websites and links to information, education and referral services. Students who are seen at the student health service are automatically screened for alcohol misuse."

Surely many students roll their eyes at such "discussions" and fail to visit the links, but the University recognizes the issues and gives the students and parents the tools to prepare themselves. As Ms. Rowley notes, "Irresponsible, dangerous drinking occurs among students of legal age as well as underage students, just as it occurs in the general population. In that respect, the age of legal use is an arbitrary measure of responsible drinking. More important to moderating drinking behavior is establishing community norms around acceptable behavior as well as providing young adults with the information and education about alcohol use that will allow them to make good, responsible choices." On the other hand, in the home and high school environment these issues are skirted for fear that broaching the topic may make the students suddenly get the idea to start drinking.

The debate then is: do we use an arbitrary measure of responsibility like drinking ages, or do we, as a society, take on some of the responsibility of "establishing community norms around acceptable behavior"? Of course, there is no reason we cannot do both, but in the meantime, we deprive our young adults of many of the pleasures and privileges that the rest of society enjoys. The website OpposingViews sets up the debate for you.

Of course there are the obvious cliches - we can vote, but not drink; we can be drafted, but not drink; we can sign contracts, but not drink; etc., etc., blah, blah. I'm not really concerned about these reasons, because we are allowed to do a lot of things, but not allowed to do others. It is called civilized, ordered, society and we deal with it. My point is more about when and how we learn the value and responsibility of consuming alcohol.

The 21 drinking age is an arbitrary hard-cap that removes the responsibility from parents, and the community at large, for teaching responsible alcohol consumption. The reality is young adults and teens learn to drink on college campuses far from their parents' watchful eye, under loads of peer pressure, and in stressful situations. Until students are in college, drinking is a privilege that has been withheld; but these same students are constantly inundated via advertising (professional and college sports, prime-time television, movies, magazines, websites, older siblings) and college culture that drinking is "the cool thing to do." At 20, 19, 18, even 17 or 16, it is a forbidden pleasure that the rest of the world seems so keen on, yet, remains elusive and unknown to the underaged. So, when these young adults turn 21, the dam breaks and they take it out on the nearest 30-pack of Busch Light.

If the drinking age were put back to 18, or even 16, or (oh nos!) eliminated altogether, these teens would come of age when they are still living with parents - the first "real" beer would not be the Beast Light kegger at the Zeta Psi house, it would be a Spotted Cow with parents at a birthday dinner. But, it would also put squarely on the parents the role of teaching responsible drinking; and, while, yes, parents should be teaching this anyway, in anticipation of that 21st birthday party, it is a lesson without any real practical implications or consequences.

In what ways does a parent teach a pre-21 year old the value of responsible drinking? A chalkboard and easel that outlines the chemical composition of alcohol and list of side-effects and their possible impact on a young body? Maybe a 50s-era public service announcement that shows a kid driving a car into a tree? Maybe take the passive aggressive route and leave YouTube open to a teen-propaganda video claiming that underage drinking leads to manslaughter?

Or, maybe by sharing a glass of beer or wine over dinner and showing that it can be a beverage to be respected? Maybe at social events where parents can monitor exactly how much the kid is drinking and cut him or her off? Look, I'm a realist; the kid will probably, at some point, drink too much and end the night praying to a porcelain god. Would you rather that happen for the first time at home, with parents to deliver a stern lesson? Or would you rather that happen in a college fraternity house in front of a cheering audience crying "Puke and Rally, dude! Puke and Rally!!"? Do we blindly proclaim abstinence or nothing? Or do we admit to ourselves the reality and teach responsibility and provide prophylactics?

Finally, university binge drinking is a crime without a punishment. The vast majority of it goes on behind closed doors where police cannot access the rampant underage consumption. Moreover, most of these kids are under their parents' medical insurance and very few of them drive after drinking (most of the establishments are within walking distance). So, while that 3am trip to the emergency room to have the stomach pumped is uncomfortable, there are no lasting physical problems, and, more importantly, there are no financial ramifications - it is not like the student is paying for it out of pocket.

Simply put the rules currently in place not only impede responsible parenting regarding alcohol, but seem to actively discourage it. The papers are rife with parents doing the "right" thing and providing safe places or providing safe rides, only to be hassled later by MADD and/or the police. An 18-year old drinking a beer is not a problem. An 18-year drinking six beers is a problem. But a 35-year old drinking six beers is also a problem.

In any event, in the meantime the drinking age is 21. So, if you are under 21 please do not drink. And if you do, please (please!!) do not tell the police Madison Beer Review said it was OK.

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