Is Lowering the Drinking Age Really the Answer to College Binge Drinking?

By Casey Domski

Every year thousands of kids head off to college, some attending Ivy League establishments, others seeking a fresh start at a local state school. One theme, however, seems to be common on every college campus across the country–drinking. At some schools, consuming alcohol is seen as more of a rite of passage rather than a Friday night extracurricular, and it is no secret that many of the kids partaking in college drinking are not 21.

According to the 2012 Monitoring the Future Study, 81% of college students have tried alcohol at least once and 70% report they have been drunk. These statics demonstrate just how common drinking is among college students, and while there is really no true way to completely stop students from drinking on campus, there have been debates about how to eliminate the dangers of it. For many that answer is to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. This would make it legal for all college students to consume alcohol, which many argue takes away its appeal.

How will taking away the appeal of alcohol solve the issue of college drinking, though? The issue of college drinking is not so much alcohol itself, but rather the rate and quantity in which it is consumed. Alcohol consumed in large quantities in a short amount of time is referred to by most as binge drinking. Binge drinking is not only one of the most common forms of college drinking, it is also one of the most deadly. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.

Why is the drinking age seen as the main cause for deadly binge drinking? According to a May 2011 article on latimes.com, “right now we basically have alcohol prohibition for adults ages 18 to 20, and we are getting some of the same results we got through national prohibition in the early 20th century.”

As with early 20th century prohibition, while we are seeing fewer young people drink regularly; when they do they drink a lot, and usually in excess. Many feel that the “risk” of underage drinking is actually fueling its appeal. The risk of getting caught or doing what you’re not allowed to makes it more exciting for kids, especially on college campuses where parties are a nightly event.

If the legal age of alcohol consumption was reduced, it would not come without caution, according to a Sept. 2009 article on CNN.com, “We should prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol in the same way we prepare them to operate a motor vehicle: by first educating and then licensing, and permitting them to exercise the full privileges of adulthood so long as they demonstrate their ability to observe the law.”

Even with these cautions and alarming statistics, not everyone shares the same views on reducing the drinking age. Many argue that the change would cause more issues then it would solve. In a recent Feb. 2013 article posted on sciencedaily.com, a study that tracked the long-term drinking behavior of more than 39,000 people who began consuming alcohol in the 1970s, when some states had legal drinking ages as low as 18, it was found that “people who lived in states with lower minimum drinking ages weren’t more likely to consume more alcohol overall or to drink more frequently than those from states where the drinking age was 21, but when they did drink, they were more likely to drink heavily.”

This study shows that lowering the drinking age would in fact not solve the issue of college binge drinking at all, but would rather escalate it. While there is no clear answer in the ongoing debate, I think it is important to note that since the age was raised to 21 in the 1980s, there have been significantly less alcohol related deaths, accidents and injuries in the United States. While lowering the age may reduce the amount of binge drinking on college campuses, it does not mean that young adults in the age range of 18 to 20 are ready to handle the other responsibilities of legal drinking, such as not driving under the influence or providing alcohol to minors.

http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/special-populations-co-occurring-disorders/college-drinking

http://www.centurycouncil.org/binge-drinking/statistics

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