The best aspect of the recent suggestion by about 100 college presidents that the U.S. consider lowering the legal drinking age to 18 is that it will stir considerable controversy. Their suggestion should draw attention to the widespread problem of under-age drinking.
It's a problem that begs for fresh ideas, because the current laws clearly aren't working. Underage drinkers are easy to find at most colleges and one of the problems is that it's not just a case of a student relaxing with a beer or two. Binge drinking seems to exist at epidemic proportions and the consequences are seen in fatal accidents and high levels of alcohol abuse or dependence among young people.
The college presidents seem to want to move the drinking from the dorms to public bars where the students would be served by bartenders who have legal responsibilities that discourage them from over-serving customers.
The next step in this discussion should be for the college officials to spell out their plan if the restrictions of the current drinking age laws are eased. Will colleges allow younger drinkers to use alcohol in their rooms or will they adopt a zero-tolerance attitude regarding drinking in the dorms? Underage drinkers at most colleges rarely receive harsh punishments from the schools. Will they be expelled for violating no-alcohol policies if the age is lowered?
Alcohol will always be abused by a certain segment of society, regardless of age. Will lowering the drinking age encourage students who drink to do so in a more responsible manner?
If college presidents are serious about this initiative they face an extremely steep political challenge. A federal highway law coerced all 50 states to raise their drinking ages to 21 years ago by threatening to withhold highway funds to those states that didn't do so.
Regardless of the difficulty of rolling back the drinking age, we look forward to see what alternative policies might come out of this discussion. It's a serious problem and one that shouldn't be ignored.
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