Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Teach Drinking

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High-school seniors tend to hold romantic notions of college life: newfound freedoms, enlightenment, keg-fueled free-for-alls. But the last attraction has lately achieved a new prominence: at one major university, student visits to the emergency room for alcohol-related treatment have increased by 84 percent in the past three years. Between 1993 and 2001, 18-to-20-year-olds showed a 56 percent jump in the rate of heavy-drinking episodes. Underage drinkers now consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol during binges. These alarming rates have life-threatening consequences: each year, underage drinking kills some 5,000 young people and contributes to roughly 600,000 injuries and 100,000 cases of sexual assault among college students.

The way our society addresses this problem has been about as effective as a parachute that opens on the second bounce. Clearly, state laws mandating a minimum drinking age of 21 haven’t eliminated drinking by young adults—they’ve simply driven it underground, where life and health are at greater risk. Merely adjusting the legal age up or down doesn’t work—we’ve tried that already and failed. But federal law has stifled the ability to conceive of more creative solutions in the only place where the Constitution says such debate should happen—in the state house—because any state that sets its drinking age lower than 21 forfeits 10 percent of its federal highway funds. This is called an “incentive.”

So what might states, freed from this federal penalty, do differently? They might license 18-year-olds—adults in the eyes of the law—to drink, provided they’ve completed high school, attended an alcohol-education course (that consists of more than temperance lectures and scare tactics), and kept a clean record. They might even mandate alcohol education at a young age. And they might also adopt zero-tolerance laws for drunk drivers of all ages, and require ignition interlocks on their cars. Such initiatives, modeled on driver’s education, might finally reverse the trend of consumption by young people at ever earlier ages. Binge drinking is as serious a crisis today as drunk driving was two decades ago. It’s time we tackled the problem like adults.

John McCardell is a president emeritus and a professor of history at Middlebury College.
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