College Presidents Urge Rethink On Drinking Age

The presidents of about 100 U.S. colleges are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age to 18. John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, says his group, the Amethyst Initiative, is against intoxication but supports responsible, adult behavior toward alcohol.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Binge drinking is a big problem on college campuses. A growing number of college presidents are trying to tackle the problem by encouraging lawmakers to lower the drinking age. You heard right. The college presidents are part of a movement called the Amethyst Initiative, and their goal is to promote a national dialogue about the drinking age.

John McCardell is the founder of the movement. He's a former president of Middlebury College and he's been pushing for years to lower the drinking age to 18. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN McCARDELL (Founder, Amethyst Initiative; Former President, Middlebury College): Thank you, Michele. It's great to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, first of all, what's the significance of the name, the Amethyst Initiative?

Mr. McCARDELL: Well, this may seem rather technically academic, but it actually is a very appropriate choice. Amethyst in Greek means against intoxication, hence, the name Amethyst Initiative. We are against intoxication. We are for responsible adult behavior when it comes to alcohol.

NORRIS: Now, people listening to this may think that it's a bit counterintuitive to argue for lowering the drinking age, effectively allowing younger people to have more access to alcohol.

Mr. McCARDELL: And it would seem that way on the surface. But the data overwhelmingly show that the vast majority of young people, by the time they reach college age, have already had some exposure to alcohol. And we shouldn't be surprised by that or necessarily dismayed by it because, in fact, it puts us in step with most of the rest of the world. Where we fall out of step is in our approach to that reality, whereas most of the rest of the world has set its drinking age at or below the age of majority.

Our country is one of only four countries in the world that has an age as high as 21. And so we face really two possible choices. If alcohol is a reality in the lives of 18, 19 and 20-year-olds, who are adults in the eyes of the law, we can either try to change that reality. The other option is to create the safest possible environment for that reality. And that, it seems to me, is what a lower drinking age would do.

NORRIS: You know, a lot of people do not like this idea of lowering the drinking age. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, what we've known as MADD, they strongly oppose this idea. And today, they put out a statement saying, the science backs up their view. They said the 21-year-old drinking age has reduced drunk-driving and underage and binge drinking. What do you say to that?

Mr. McCARDELL: Well, I think, of the 102 studies that have tried to show a correlation between legal age, 21, and a reduction in traffic fatalities, about half show a positive relationship, the other half show no relationship at all. I think if we look at alcohol-related traffic fatalities, we see that they have, in fact, gone down over the last 25 years. But that downward trend began before the law changed. And in fact, alcohol-related traffic fatalities reached a 10-year high in 2006. So we can't selectively apply the laws of cause and effect.

We're all against drunk driving though. And to measure the effect of this law solely in terms of its effect on the highways is simply to disregard all of the rest of the places in which this law works its will.

NORRIS: Drinking age for now is determined on a state-by-state basis. If states do lower the drinking age, they risk losing 10 percent of their highway fund. Some states are…

Mr. McCARDELL: Exactly right.

NORRIS: …are actually discussing this right now, considering lowering the drinking age. But that's a tough choice - losing that 10 percent (unintelligible) being a lot of money - tough choice for states that have infrastructure problems or roads that need improving.

Mr. McCARDELL: That's exactly right. And that's why the initiatives that we saw taking place in Wisconsin and South Carolina, some other states this year, really went nowhere. If the other side is correct, that the American public overwhelmingly supports legal age 21, then there's nothing to fear with removing this incentive. If, in fact, the public does support the drinking age, then we will keep it at 21. Once that 10 percent comes out, the age remains 21 until a state should choose to change it. But at least then, we can have the debate unimpeded.

NORRIS: John McCardell is the founder of the Amethyst Initiative - that's a group that pushes for national debate on the drinking age. He is the former president of Middlebury College. Thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. McCARDELL: Thank you very much, Michele.

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