As UVM and other universities work to address student alcohol
abuse, one of the greatest hindrances they face is the fact that
the legal drinking age is set at twenty-one, an age most college
students wont reach until their junior or senior years.
This perspective is built upon more than two decades studying
college student drinking patterns and the history of alcohol use
in this country and other cultures. My research has led me to
believe strongly that perhaps the simplest and most dramatic action
we could take to create more responsible alcohol consumption among
college students would be to lower the legal drinking age to eighteen
or nineteen. Young adults could be allowed to drink in controlled
environments such as restaurants, taverns, pubs and official school
and university functions. In these situations where mature and
sensible drinking would be expected responsible alcohol consumption
could be taught through role modeling and educational programs.
Although the legal purchase age is twenty-one years, a majority
of college students under this age consume alcohol certainly
not a surprise to anyone. When they have the opportunity to drink,
they do so in an irresponsible manner because drinking by these
youth is seen as an enticing forbidden fruit, a badge of rebellion
against authority and a symbol of adulthood. As a nation we
have tried prohibition legislation twice in the past for controlling
irresponsible drinking problems, during National Prohibition in
the 1920s and state prohibition during the 1850s. Because they
were unenforceable and because the backlash towards them caused
other social problems, these laws were finally repealed.
Prohibition did not work then and prohibition for young people
under the age of twenty-one is not working now.
The flaunting of the current laws is readily seen among our nations
university students. Those under the age of twenty-one are more
likely to be heavy sometimes called binge drinkers (consuming
more than five drinks at least once a week). For example, 22%
of all students under twenty-one compared to 18% over twenty-one
years of age are heavy drinkers. Among drinkers only, 32% of under
age compared to 24% of legal age are heavy drinkers.
Research from the early 1980s until the present has shown a continuous
decrease in drinking and driving related variables which has paralleled
the nations, and also university students, decrease in per capita
consumption. However, these declines started in 1980 before the
national 1987 law which mandated states to set the legal purchase
age at twenty-one.
The decrease in drinking and driving problems are the result of
manyfactors and not just the rise in purchase age or the decreased
per capita consumption.These include: education concerning drunk
driving, designated driver programs, increased seat belt and air
bag usage, safer automobiles, lower speed limits, free taxi services
from drinking establishments, etc.
While there has been a decrease in per capita consumption and
motor vehicle crashes, unfortunately, during this same time period
there has been an increase in other problems related to heavy
and irresponsible drinking among college age youth. Most of these
reported behaviors showed little change until after the legal
age was mandated at twenty-one in 1987. For example from 1982
until 1987 about 46% of students reported vomiting after drinking.
This jumped to over 50% after the law change.
Significant increases were also found for other variables: cutting
class after drinking jumped from 9% to almost 12%; missing class
because of hangover went from 26% to 28%; getting lower grade
because of drinking rose from 5% to 7%; and been in a fight
after drinking increased from 12% to 17%.
This increase in abusive drinking behavior is due to underground
drinking outside of adult supervision in student rooms and apartments
where same-age individuals come together in the 1990s collegiate
reincarnation of the speakeasy.
Based upon the fact that our current prohibition laws are not
working, alternative approaches taken from the experience of cultures
who do not have these problems need to be tried. In Europe, two
different drinking cultures developed in antiquity. In the Mediterranean
regions, wine consumption with meals by all members of the culture
evolved, along with a norm of moderation. In the more northern
and eastern regions of Europe, drinking to intoxication of grain-based
beverages at feasts emerged, along with ambivalence towards alcohol.
Groups such as Italians, Greeks, Chinese, and Jews, who have few
drinking related problems, tend to share some common characteristics.
Alcohol is neither seen as a poison or a magic potent, there is
little or no social pressure to drink, irresponsible behavior
is never tolerated, young people learn at home from their parents
and from other adults how to handle alcohol in a responsible manner,
and there is societal consensus on what constitutes responsible
We can learn from this. Because the twenty-one year old drinking age law is not working, and is counterproductive, it behooves us as a nation to change our current prohibition law and to teach responsible drinking techniques for those who chose to consume alcoholic beverages.
By Ruth Engs 61
Ruth Engs is a professor of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University. Her scholarship and teaching has focused on historical and cultural patterns of alcohol use, with a particular emphasis on studying these issues in relation to U.S. college students.