100 College Presidents want to discuss Lowering Drinking Age

Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Fosters Daily Democrat



DURHAM — Calls to lower the drinking age, which seem to be an annual occurrence since Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, this time are being trumpeted from an unlikely source: a group of more than 100 college presidents and chancellors calling themselves the "Amethyst Initiative."

No, they didn't steal the title from the television series "Lost" — "amethyst" is derived from the ancient Greek words "a" (not) and "methustos" (intoxicated) — and they are hoping their institutional profile will, according to a statement on the group's website, "support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."

The group, which was started by Middlebury College President Emeritus John McCardell earlier this year, has had representatives from such high-profile schools as Dartmouth College, Duke University and the University of Maryland-College Park sign its mission statement. The University of New Hampshire has not signed on, though Southern New Hampshire University has.

Local college students and bar owners said in interviews they were skeptical the debate will actually lead to a lowering of the drinking age, but SHNU President Paul LeBlanc said it's still a discussion worth having.

"This question has been almost untouchable," he said, adding that the the 21-year-old minimum drinking age has created more problems than it has solved, at least on college campuses.

"The problem is it drives drinking behaviors off campus and into places we can't manage," he said.

Having a lower drinking age, such as 18, would encourage students to stay on campus where they would be surrounded by a "safety net," LeBlanc argued. Doing so would "create a culture where healthier drinking habits occur," he said.

UNH spokeswoman Kim Billings said in statement that university President Mark Huddleston supports expanding the drinking age conversation because alcohol abuse is a recurring problem.

That said, "We expect our students to obey all alcohol laws, and will ensure that our own enforcement activities are consistent with the law."

Durham police did not return a phone call seeking comment Tuesday.

Whether alcohol use is an issue at UNH depends on who you ask.

According to the Princeton Review, UNH is ranked third in how widely alcohol is used on campus and 11th in terms of being a "party school." Those rankings are based primarily on online surveys conducted by 120,000 students at 368 schools across the country.

Graham Camire, co-owner of Scorpions Bar and Grill in Durham, which is frequented by UNH students, said the school's party reputation is overplayed. Camire graduated from UNH in 2001 and said he remembers the party scene being much greater in the 1990s.

From a financial standpoint, Camire said a lowered drinking age would obviously be a windfall for bar owners, but he was wary of the effects of suddenly allowing a greater swath of the student population to drink legally.

"I don't want to see 18-year-old kids running around here," Camire said at his bar Tuesday, which was empty of students because classes do not start until September.

He was skeptical that the drinking age would ever be lowered.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984, when Congress responded to calls from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to increase the drinking age. Studies have shown that drunken driving- and binge drinking-related deaths decreased in the late 1980s and 1990s, though LeBlanc questioned the data that backed up those trends.

He said improved car safety measures like airbags and seat belts, coupled with more effective law enforcement, could have been responsible for the drop in alcohol-related deaths.

LeBlanc said educational programs and a reduced drinking age would do much more to alleviate alcohol abuse on campus than having the minimum drinking age at 21 and advocating abstinence.

"Prohibition has taught us that abstinence doesn't work," he said.

State Rep. Emma Rous, D-Durham, said discussing the drinking law is a reasonable thing to do, but added that alcohol abuse is rooted in deeper issues like the perception among incoming students that drinking in college is a coming-of-age activity.

"I don't think the drinking-age law is the magic bullet," she said.

To Celeste Eno and Lucy Pleticha, both 23-year-old graduate students at UNH, the drinking age debate is one that is not worth having with everything else going on in the country, from the war in Iraq to the state of the economy.

"There's a lot more to worry about," Pleticha said.

Even if the drinking age was lowered, Eno said it wouldn't change students' drinking habits.

"People seem to drink whatever their age," she said.

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