New research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found substantial reductions in binge drinking since the national drinking age was set at 21 two decades ago, with one exception: college students. The rates of binge drinking in male collegians remain unchanged, but the rates in female collegians have increased dramatically.
What is it about the college environment which causes such a disparity in drinking rates between college students and their non-college attending peers?
Among 18- to 20-year-old non-college men, binge drinking declined by more than 30% over the study period, whereas it was statistically unchanged among the men in college. For men ages 21 to 23, rates of binge drinking declined just more than 10 percent but remained virtually the same in those of the same age who attended college. In women ages 21 to 23, binge drinking increased about 20 percent among non-students, but the increase was more than 40 percent among women in college.
There’s a strong possibility that setting the minimum drinking age to 21 has had the unintended effect of causing more binge drinking because the only source of alcohol for underage college students is generally at parties. Those parties are not known for encouraging drinking in moderation; if anything, the opposite is true. Individuals who aren’t in the college environment may have peers old enough to purchase alcohol for them, but it is being consumed in a low pressure, relaxed environment. More importantly, alcoholic beverages aren’t viewed as a “feast or famine” type of commodity.
College presidents have taken note of this.
Two years ago, McCardell started an organization called Choose Responsibility, which waged a national campaign to lower the drinking age to 18. The soft-spoken scholar soon found that many other campus executives felt the same way. In early 2008 he started the Amethyst Initiative, a collective of college presidents urging a public discussion about the drinking age. At press time, the Amethyst Initiative had 130 signatories, including the presidents of Duke, Tufts, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins.
Senior Editor Radley Balko at Reason Online spoke with McCardell in October.
Q: Why lower the drinking age?
A: We’ve had a law on the books for 24 years now. You don’t need an advanced degree to see that the law has utterly failed. Seventy-five percent of high school seniors have consumed alcohol. Sixty-six percent of high school sophomores have.
The law abridges the age of majority. It hasn’t reduced consumption but has only made it riskier. Finally, it has disenfranchised parents and removed any opportunity for adults to educate or to model responsible behavior about alcohol.