A Spirited Debate On A Lower Drinking Age

College drinking graphic. Binge drinking, alcohol abuse, alcoholism.
There's a new push to change the drinking age, and it's coming from an unlikely group of people.

It seems like an age-old question: Is the current drinking age of 21 the appropriate one, or should it be lowered, to 18? The answer is lowered, according to a movement called the Amethyst Initiative.

College presidents from more than 100 of the nation's best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, were recruited by the Amethyst Initiative more than a year ago to provoke a national debate about the drinking age. And provoke it has.

While petitions are being circulated on some campuses to lower the legal drinking age, other activists say such a move would only cost more young lives to alcohol and alcohol-related accidents.

The drinking age was raised to 21 nationwide in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

"This is a law that is routinely evaded," said John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who founded the Amethyst Initiative. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."

Caitlin McCarthy, a University of Arizona junior, said, "Should they initiate the draft, you know, the age is 18. If we can go out and fight and die for our country, and you can't have a beer, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me."

An Epidemic Of Binge Drinking

Studies tells us parents like the drinking age as-is. But many students disagree. One told CBS News, "Whether the drinking age is 18 or 21 I don't think it really matters, because if people are going to abuse alcohol they're going to do it regardless of the law."

According to a 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Department of Health and Human Services, 28.3 percent of Americans aged 12-20 (about 10.8 million people) reported drinking within the past month; 7.2 million were binge drinkers (at least 5 drinks in one sitting).

Alcohol is relatively cheap, is heavily marketed, and often packaged in youth-friendly products like sweet alcohol beverages and malt liquors. Accessibility is key: A 2002 study said that, despite laws against sales to minors, 11 percent of all alcohol purchased in the United States is consumed by underage drinkers.

With underage binge drinking on the rise, seven states have explored the possibility of lowering the drinking age.

McCardell said that binge drinking occurs primarily because students must hide their behavior.

In its statement (currently signed by 114 college heads), Amethyst says, "Twenty-one is not working" and "A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' - often conducted off-campus - has developed.

"Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. …

"By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependance. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

A recent Associated Press analysis of federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.

"We also need to keep in mind that alcohol-related traffic fatalities reached a ten-year high in 2006," McCardell said on The Early Show. "They've been going up in the last ten years. We also need to keep in mind that peer-reviewed research shows more than 1,000 lives of 18- to 24-year-olds are lost each year off the highways to alcohol. The evidence is not all on one side of this debate, and we need to consider all of those data and consider whether 21 is, in fact, serving us well."

But Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.

Dean-Mooney told The Early Show she was "alarmed" when she heard of the Amethyst Institute's statement, and suggests that those university presidents who signed on were perhaps misguided or misled.

"We know the 21 minimum age drinking law does work," she said. "There's 48 highly-backed studies to back the fact that the law does work. It saved over 1,000 young people's lives every year for the last 24 years. Why would we go back? We tried this in the '70s and '80s. It simply did not work then; alcohol-related fatalities went up in that age group.

"College presidents don't want this passed down to them from college presidents who are being irresponsible," she said.

When asked if raising the driving age to 18 would lower the risk of young people drinking and driving, Mooney discounted the suggestions. "We know that people continue to drive, for instance, after a drunk driving conviction," she told Early Show anchor Harry Smith. "They'll simply drive without their license. Up to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive. Why would we think that 18-year-olds would drive or not drive, you know? It's not the solution."

McCardell said the presidential statement released does not call for a change in the drinking age. "The presidential statement simply says that based on our own experience and 24 years of this law on the books, we believe there's evidence to show that 21 is not working - that it has had unintended consequences, and that it is well past time to open public debate about all of the effects of this law on our campuses and elsewhere."

Federal law would impose a heavy penalty on any state which opts to lower its drinking age: a loss of ten percent of its federal highway funds. "That penalty needs to go," McCardell said. "Removing that 10 percent incentive is the surest way to resume the debate that needs to take place."

Waving The White Flag?

Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem.

"I'm not sure where the dialogue will lead, but it's an important topic to American families and it deserves a straightforward dialogue," said William Troutt, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has signed the statement.

But some other college administrators sharply disagree that lowering the drinking age would help. University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Clinton, declined to sign.