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Chat with John McCardell

John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College, wants to lower the drinking age to 18. He recently established a nonprofit, Choose Responsibility, to push for this change.

Matt__Guest_: I remember at that time that there was no hard evidence that the higher drinking age reduced overall deaths or injuries, on an adjusted basis. Do you have statistical information on which you are basing your efforts?

John_McCardell: A cause-and-effect relationship has been asserted, but has also been overstated, in my view. It is based on a very complex formula and involves a process called "imputation." Alcohol related fatalities began to decline before the law was changed in 1984, and they declined in all age groups. An article by the distinguished scholar Ralph Hingson suggests that 3 times as many lives are lost to alcohol in places other than on the highways. It seems to me we need to explore where and why that very disturbing statistic comes from and also remind ourselves that those lost lives are no less precious than those lost on the highways.
setanta__Guest_: I think it would be a good thing to lower the drinking age to 18.
John_McCardell: Agreed!
John_McCardell: I guess we're now "officially" begun! I look forward to the next hour and welcome all questions. This is an issue that needs to be approached in as informed and dispassionate a way as possible. The Globe's unscientific poll suggests that the public is ready to renew the debate over legal age 21. Let the discussion begin!
joe__Guest_: I think the last time the drinking age was lowered to 18, we were at war. And people said if you're old enough to die for your country, you should be old enough to drink. Is that argument mentioned at all today?
John_McCardell: It is indeed. Our law defines 18 as the 'age of majority," at which time one becomes an adult: able to vote, serve on a jury, sign a contract, and of course serve in the military. One is an adult in other words with a single exception: the right to purchase, possess, and consume alcohol. Interestingly, the Marines have recently liberalized drinking regulations on their bases. But it is still the case that a 18, 19 or 20 year-old service man or woman returning to the US from a combat zone will be arrested for buying or consuming a beer.
Fee__Guest_: Everything is done through education, we teach them to be soldier through education. We can teach them to be responsible through education.
John_McCardell: Education works. Perhaps the best example is how well an organization like MADD has educated us about the risks of drinking and driving. They introduced the term "designated driver" to our vocabulary. Right now, though, alcohol education is mandatory only AFTER one has been convicted of DUI. That is not exactly an act of genius. Why not redeploy those manhours and dollars to educate the population much earlier and more comprehensively?
folgers__Guest_: Drinking a glass of wine with the college president sounds OK. Can't you just do that now? Are you afraid of the campus cops? The real problem would be 18 year olds buying beer by themselves, maybe sharing it with 15 year old friends.
John_McCardell: You may not just do that now. And on many college campuses, enforcement of the alcohol laws may legitimately be termed overzealous. Of course there is a risk of underage (under 18) drinking, but even with legal age 21, underage drinking is a very serious problem. Perhaps if law enforcement were able to focus on this genuinely serious aspect of alcohol consumption instead of stopping students who are simply walking across campus, we might solve several problems.
Billy2__Guest_: Doesn't the 21 age just force college drinkers underground and off campus? Couldn't colleges better prevent binge drinking if the age were 18, bring drinking back on campus were it can be monitored???
John_McCardell: I couldn't say it any better than you. Alcohol is a reality. We cannot banish it. Prohibition does not work, has never worked, and legal age 21 is an act of prohibition. Far better to have laws that allow the reality to occur in a safe environment. Right now, that is not the case.
Steven__Guest_: Is there any research about drinking and driving in countries that don't have a drinking age lower than 21? Is it worse?
John_McCardell: Only Indonesia, Mongolia, and Palau have a drinking age as high as ours. The entire rest of the world has set it lower or has no stated age. There is little evidence to show that in countries where alcohol is an accepted part of family and community life, there are more severe drinking problems. (In many cases, alcohol is viewed as food and consumed moderately.) To be sure, in some cultures, there is a higher rate of consumption, but that does not lead to measurably more risky or boorish behavior, largely because the consumption is taking place out in the open, often in public places. As an historian it seems odd to me that advocates of legal age 21 would view the American population as so exceptionally ... what? incapable? ... as to require a law most of the rest of the world would view as abnormally restrictive.
Donna__Mother_of_3__Guest_: If we lower the drinking age to 18, we damned well better raise the driving age to 21! Alcohol may be a reality, but so is the fact that kids this age have no sense, and less when you add alcohol to the mix. I'd prefer NOT to be killed by a kid with booze in his system, thank you.
John_McCardell: You may be correct, and reconsidering the driving age may be quite worthwhile. But do remember, our laws have determined that 18 year-olds are adults.
Roman__Guest_: I think this is a great idea and should have been implemented a long time ago. The US is the only country with 21 as its drinking age. Old argument but valid - if you can be in the army, then you can drink.
John_McCardell: Agreed.
folgers__Guest_: If you think schools and colleges should teach kids to drink in moderation, do you also think they should teach them to smoke cigarettes is moderation?
John_McCardell: Last time I checked, the age at which one could purchase tobacco products was not as high as 21. I think in fact we do a much better job educating young people about tobacco, and, unlike alcohol, where a parent is effectively disenfranchised from any involvement beyond lecturing, there are opportunities for parents to exercise their responsibility for helping their children understand about tobacco and its risks.
cassandra_arcotta__Guest_: When the society make sth less "cool", less dangerous activity occurs.
John_McCardell: "Forbidden fruit" has always had a peculiar appeal. That is a part of our imperfect human nature.
julia__Guest_: I completely agree with your proposition. Teenagers/ College students are going to drink no matter what the legal age is. At least with a little more education and the fact that if the drinking age is reduced and abused, authorities have the right to revoke the "license".
John_McCardell: Right now, of every 1000 violations of the drinking age law, 2 result in arrest or citation. If we spend 10 times as much money and hire 10 times as many people, we will then catch 20 out of 1000. We should deal with genuine abuse and reckless behavior, as your comment suggests.
Brian_Abend__Guest_: President McCardell, it was nice to see you the other weekend at Commencement, but I just wanted to say I applaud your efforts to lower the drinking age. How do you respond to people who are under the impression that if the drinking age is lowered, the current under-18 drinkers will just be able to drink more, drink more often, and drink to excess now that many high school seniors will have access to alcohol?
John_McCardell: Hello Brian. I think this is a very serious concern. It is hard to argue that legal age 21 has been very effective in dealing with this issue, which, if anything, seems to be worsening. There should be serious penalties for providing alcohol to a minor (under 18), and the prospect of losing one's own right to drink may have a better effect than anything now on the books.
Billy2__Guest_: High school drinking is a real concern but a different issue. I never drank in high school because I couldn't get away with it living in my parents house. Today's parents need to step up and not punish college age students for their lack of supervision. High school drinking has certainly not been solved by the 21 age.
John_McCardell: Parents have 2, unacceptable, choices under current law: look the other way, and thus say that it's OK to break laws you don't agree with (don't bother using your seat belt if you don't feel like it); or enforcing the law, knowing full well that a child will simply go somewhere else, less safe. Parents have been disenfranchised by current law. It is not an exaggeration to say that legal age 21 is anti-family.
CommonSense__Guest_: I think the first requirement for the young drinkers is to have a guided tour of a detox facility and sit down and chat with some of the patients. I know, I've been there.
John_McCardell: the education program we envision would go far beyond books, lectures, and videos. Young people should visit folks in treatment, victims of drunken driving, should study brain development. We envision a serious and thorough course of study.
Brian5688__Guest_: You've stated that it's important for drinkers to be educated on the potential risks of drinking. What type of education would you like to see implemented on drinking, and where would it be taught?
John_McCardell: In the same way that parents assume some of the responsibility for helping a son or daughter learn to drive, we propose that, upon turning 18, a young adult would be permitted to consume alcohol at home in the presence of a parent. But the course, and the license, would await completion of high school. Furthermore, and this is important, "Choose" is a part of our name, and choosing not to drink should also be a respected decision.
better__Guest_: To Donna - 18 yr old "KIDS" these days have no sense becasue their parents have hellicoptered them to death and they can't make their own decisions.
John_McCardell: Much of the research on the current generation of college age students suggests that they enjoy the presence of adults. Thus telling them they lack maturity and judgment is incongruous with how they (and, in all other respects the law) view themselve.
John_McCardell: A question: it has been suggested that this iis only a problem for the "elite" in colleges and universities in the northeast. I believe this issue affects the noncollege population of 18-20 year-olds at least as much. Any comments?
sully__Guest_: i think marijuanna should be legalized before the drinking age is lowered, your thoughts
John_McCardell: Different issue. Marijuana is banned for everyone. Alcohol is not.
Billy2__Guest_: Where does public transportation fit into this? Boston is pretty good (although the T closes an hour before the bars, not too smart!) What about less urban areas like VT?
John_McCardell: Public transportation is indeed important. Interestingly, there is a (misguided, in my opinion) view that "safe rides" programs simply encourage young adults to drink more, and that argument has prevented safe rides programs from being implemented on some campuses, where I suppose something approximating Paradise describes the drinking scene.
folgers__Guest_: I think you and the posters are assuming that all kids drink. This might be true in some subcultures, but in general a large percentage of the adult and teen population doesn't drink. At many colleges, although I don't know about Middlebury, drinking is not a common occurance. Many kids, surprisingly, go to college to learn.
John_McCardell: In fact, fewer young people today are choosing to drink than was the case a decade ago. But those who do choose to drink are drinking more recklessly. If we are insisting on cause-and-effect between legal age 21 and certain variables, we need to include this one.
Dave__Guest_: Mr. McCardell , The notion that it is a crime to consume alcoholic beverages at the age of 20 and then be able to consume as much as wanted at the age of 21 is a poor model for resposible drinking. Dave
John_McCardell: Something magical must happen the day one turns 21.
Janey__Guest_: I think lowering the drinking age to 18 is a long-overdue idea. I commend you on your vision and your courage.
John_McCardell: Thanks.
John_McCardell: By the way, please do visit our web site:
chris__Guest_: What steps, if any, have you taken on your campus to help prevent binge drinking? Are you as strict on underage drinking as other colleges?
John_McCardell: Most schools have some variation on a system of increased penalties for violations and repeat violations, beginning with a warning and ending with suspension. But in fact there is little beyond penalties a college can do, since we, like parents, have 2 choices: look the other way, which only invites local and state law enforcement to step in to enforce the law, or enforce it ourselves, driving drinking behind closed doors and/or off-campus. It is an impossible situation.
Brian5688__Guest_: Drinking is only a problem for colleges and universities in the northeast? If that is the suggestion, then it's bull. Drinking to excess is a problem everywhere, and I've seen it increasingly rise among people I know. I've visited the hospital with my underage friend who drank to excess, and although I do attend a Northeastern College I have friends elsewhere who can tell similar stories. If you're a teenager in America, you're going to deal with underage drinking. End of story.
John_McCardell: Thank you -- my view as well, but this charge has been made, i.e., "this may be a problem in Ivy League America, but in blue collar America legal age 21 is working very well."
Mike__04__Guest_: Good morning Mr. McCardell, Mike Yedinak '04 here. One of the things that I would worry about if the drinking age were lowered would be an immediate (if perhaps short-term) rise in risky behavior among teens. Specifically, my concern would be the availability of a once-banned substance being met by binging habits. Do you share this concern, and if so, how would you propose that it be addressed? Thanks!
John_McCardell: See my earlier response to a similar question. Loss of license could have a very salutary effect. There is certainly little evidence that curent law has been very effective in curbing this problem.
Gabe__Guest_: To what extent is the drinking problem exacerbated are rural colleges like Middlebury? They are isolated, harder to leave (you can't get anywhere by bus or train), less to do.
John_McCardell: Yes -- see my earlier response re "safe rides."
crushed__Guest_: Being responsible and drinking responsibly are interconnected in many ways. The problem lies in the under 18 years who bring those traits of abuse and innocense with them to college. I feel the problem is for those individuals that won't be able to receive the same type of education and continue the abuse and missuse of behavioral patterns.What do you think?
John_McCardell: Perhaps we should consider a graduated program of alcohol education beginning at a much earlier age. But we must resist depending solely on the state to solve this problem, which in much of the rest of the world is deemed to be a family responsibility. Unfortunately, our current laws do not allow families to exercise this responsibility.
D_Wayne_JOhnson__Guest_: Let's stop kidding ourselves... Kids who want to drink are gonna drink. I don't care if the drinking age is 50.
John_McCardell: And thus the goal of public policy should be to create the safest possible environment. We should keep them from harming themselves or others; we cannot be agents of prohibition.
Boston007: As a child of European parents, I grew up with Wine/Beer at the dinner table and my father was lax in letting us try it. I never had a problem with drinking through high school and college. It's all about responsibility. This 21 age thing is terrible, trust me.
John_McCardell: Words of wisdom from abroad!
BOShome__Guest_: I just quickly read the article posted on you at and I want to commend you. I am 25 yrs old and I have always thought we, as a country, are doing a disservice to our youth by criminalizing and glamorizing drinking. I believe there will be a rocky period following a drop in the legal age from 21 to 18. Do you agree? How long of an adjustment period do you think will exist before we see improvement?
John_McCardell: There may well be. Do note that during the first several years after the law changed in 1984, alcohol-related traffic fatalities went UP (but few people blamed the law). But we need to agree upon how successis to be defined and measured before we change the law.
Billy2__Guest_: Have you studied the recent rise of binge drinking in Britain?
John_McCardell: Yes, and it is a complicated issue: reduced hours of operation for pubs, for example.
Judson__Guest_: If 18 year olds are allowed at bars, wouldn't you see an increase in date rape drug victims?
John_McCardell: As opposed to now? I would hope not. Isn't it better to have alcohol consumption out in the open?
Brian5688__Guest_: The under-21 law also leads to inefficient laws within High Schools and colleges. The High School I went to had a rule which stated that anyone within the presence of alcohol would be at fault if the police came, and even if people hadn't been drinking they would be kicked off sports, drama, and extracurricular teams. This led to a feeling, I think, of "might as well do it". Another rule my school implemented was that if a sober student were to give someone intoxicated a ride home he would be in trouble, as he would be in contact with an underage drinker. This was supposed to lead drunken students to call their parents for a ride home, but in reality students were just forced to drink and drive. If there were a national law introduced, schools would have to follow a national policy and maybe be forced to make wiser rules.
John_McCardell: Good point -- enforcement at present is far from uniform, which leads to calculation, on the part of young adults, and occasionally overzealous activity (7 year-old were breathalyzed in an Indiana incident last weekend) by law enforcement on the other.
D_Wayne_JOhnson__Guest_: At some point, as a parent, you have to hope that what you've done, the examples you've set for the past whatever, 14,15,16 years will rub off and have some influence when kids are making decisions. The decision could be should I get in the car with that person's who's been drinking all night, should I have sex w/o protection, should I only have these 2 beers or more. There is a difference between having 2/3 beers with some friends and drinking 20 Beers and 5 shots in one evening.
John_McCardell: A very mature view. Much as we might wish it were otherwise, we can never create, much less legislate, a risk-free society. But we can, as parents, and as citizens, assume responsibility for educating young people about alcohol, if only the law allowed us to do so.
chris__Guest_: While I support and commend you, I have to play devils advocate for a second. If the age is lowered to 18, that is the age of the high school senior. How do you prevent high school seniors from buying the alcohol and supplying it to 14 year old freshmen? I know this is an issue I have heard brought up before.
John_McCardell: See my earlier responses to this question. High school seniors would not be able to purchase under our proposal. Eligibility for the license would come only after completion of high school. And also, violation of alcohol laws by those under 18 would make them ineligible for a license upon turning 18, a second strong (we believe) incentive to stay "clean."
chris__Guest_: It definetly affects the noncollege population, I would guess rates of binge drinking are the same or higher among the noncollege 18-20 population.
chris__Guest_: It definetly affects the noncollege population, I would guess rates of binge drinking are the same or higher among the noncollege 18-20 population.
Fran2__Guest_: my concern is not lowering the age to 18, but how do you prevent 17 and 16 yr olds from drinking
Boston007: The Brits? The Brits have ALWAYS been big drinkers :-)
MikeT__Guest_: It seems one of the big issues is the glamorization of "partying" and alcohol being an integral part of that (see Paris Hilton article) Changing this perceiption among under 18's is the key task in my opinion. How can we go about doing that?
John_McCardell: By making alcohol's presence (a reality) something that is normal and natural, as is the case in most other countries.
Chris_2__Guest_: I graduated from midd in '04 and I always found your approach rather refreshing. It seemed that by fostering an environment in which the social scene was kept on campus at all costs - preventing folks from having to drive to off campus parties
John_McCardell: There was a time -- before 1984 -- when faculty and staff, like parents, could actually model responsibile behavior while treating students as adults. That is not possible under current law, and something significant has been lost.
crushed__Guest_: I think that the old age question, it is not the use, it is the abuse is the center of this discussion. Until we can pinpoint the abuse there will always be a slippery slope for government and organizations to justify their fears of increasing the responsibiliy of our youth. Regardless of the age.
John_McCardell: Yes
John_McCardell: We appear to have come to the end of our hour. Thanks for your questions. Please do visit And I continue to welcome your thoughts and advce.
clydo: I think there is also a maturity issue regarding kids that are 18 drinking. There would be more fights in bars, etc.
John_McCardell: Leading to immediate forfeiture of license.