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Drinking age laws concern colleges

Presidents seek national debate

By Justin Pope
Associated Press / August 20, 2008
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NEW YORK - College presidents from about 100 of the nation's best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth, and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to take up a national debate about lowering the drinking age, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge-drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke debate about rethinking the law, which mandates 21 as the federal drinking age.

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

Other prominent schools in the group include Middlebury, Smith, Syracuse, Mount Holyoke Trinity, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon, and Morehouse.

But even before the presidents begin the public phase of their efforts, which may include publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks, they are already facing sharp criticism.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving 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.

Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem. Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated that 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 from 1999 through 2005 found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, died from drinking.

The statement the presidents have signed avoids calling explicitly for a lower drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucks the trend.

But the statement makes clear the signers think the current law isn't working, citing a "culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking," and noting that while adults under 21 can vote and enlist in the military, they "are told they are not mature enough to have a beer." Furthermore, "by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

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

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