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An Honest Conversation About Alcohol

An Honest Conversation About Alcohol
February 16, 2007

Two months after he finished up as president of Middlebury College in 2004, John M. McCardell Jr. wrote a column for The New York Times called "What Your College President Didn't Tell You." In the piece, he discussed how he was "as guilty as any of my colleagues [as presidents] of failing to take bold positions on public matters that merit serious debate." Taking advantage of his new emeritus status, he proceeded to take a few such positions. Among other things, he wrote that the 21-year-old drinking age is "bad social policy and terrible law," and that it was having a bad impact on both students and colleges.

His comments didn't surprise college presidents, many of whom boast about dry campuses or dry Greek systems that don't actually exist. But the prevailing attitude among college leaders about McCardell and his column was: "Easy for him to say now that he's retired -- and he may well be right, but it's not like he could ever do something about this."

McCardell is about to try. With backing from the Robertson Foundation, he has created a nonprofit group, Choose Responsibility, that will seek to promote a national discussion of alternatives to the 21-year-old drinking age. The group is preparing a Web site with studies that challenge conventional wisdom about the advantages of the law, while explaining its flaws. The group will also push an idea -- floated without success in the 1990s by Roderic Park, then chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder -- to allow 18-20-year-olds who complete an alcohol education program to obtain "drinking licenses." And McCardell and others plan to start speaking out, writing more op-eds, and trying to redefine the issue.

The current law, McCardell said in an interview Thursday, is a failure that forces college freshmen to hide their drinking -- while colleges must simultaneously pretend that they have fixed students' drinking problems and that students aren't drinking. McCardell also argued that the law, by making it impossible for a 19-year-old to enjoy two beers over pizza in a restaurant, leads those 19-year-olds to consume instead in closed dorm rooms and fraternity basements where 2 beers are more likely to turn into 10, and no responsible person may be around to offer help or to stop someone from drinking too much.

Any college president who thinks his or her campus has drinking under control is "delusional," McCardell said, although he acknowledged the political pressures that prevent most sitting presidents from providing an honest assessment of what's going on on their campuses. But he said that the dangers to students and institutions are great enough that it's time for someone to start speaking out. While he was president at Middlebury, one of his students died, a 21-year-old who was driving after drinking way too much.

Until the 1980s, states had a range of drinking ages, but a gradual upward push became a de facto federal policy in 1984 with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states wanting their full allotment of highway funds to have a drinking age of 21. The states all complied. Since then, federal and state officials have largely hailed the law's impact, noting among other things notable declines in the number of teenagers killed in drunk driving accidents. At the same time, federal officials have also issued warning after warning about alcohol use by teenagers -- many of them starting to drink at much younger ages than ever before.

After the Times ran his op-ed, McCardell said that he obtained a small grant from the Robertson Foundation that enabled him to hire some Middlebury students as assistants, and they started looking at available research. Their findings led the foundation to believe a larger campaign made sense -- and it awarded McCardell $200,000 to start his new group, with the idea that he would also start to raise more money.

What was striking about the research, McCardell said, was how little of it conclusively backs up claims about the positive impact of the 21-year-old drinking age. "This is by definition a very emotional issue, but what we need is an informed and dispassionate debate," he said. He said that the major flaw in analyses to date has been false assumptions about causal relationships. If DWI accidents among teens have dropped, that must be because of the rise in the drinking age, proponents say.

But McCardell noted that a range of other factors could be at play, too -- such as changing attitudes about seat belts, the availability of airbags, etc. At the same time, those who see a causal relationship in one set of statistics ignore others -- showing continued drinking by college students (under 21) and substantial evidence of truly dangerous drinking by a subset of that population.

"Data are data," McCardell said. "Facts are stubborn things."

Why does he think the law should change? Under the current system, "family members are marginalized and disenfranchised," McCardell said. To try to teach responsible drinking could involve violating the law. And teens end up experimenting with alcohol "surreptitiously and recklessly."

Then these students land at colleges, creating "an impossible situation" for institutions, McCardell said. "You either become an arm of the law, which you are not about, or a haven from the law, which poses a fundamental ethical dilemma," he said. To the extent colleges have changed drinking patterns, they have not stopped drinking, but forced it off campus or underground. Students are then "much more vulnerable."

McCardell is well aware of the odds against changing the laws, but he said that so few members of the public have ever seen or thought about the evidence -- and that change is possible with a sustained public campaign. As a former president, McCardell said that he can understand why a sitting president wouldn't want to take the lead on this issue, but he said he thinks some will join the effort if it can establish traction. "I hope to encourage them," he said.

Such a campaign will be welcomed in some quarters, but not others.

Henry Wechsler, who surveyed the drinking habits of thousands of college students for a series of projects at the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol study, called McCardell's approach "a poor idea." Wechsler said that 19-year-olds just don't drink responsibly so there is no reason for them to drink, period. "Nineteen-year-olds do not have two beers. When they drink, they drink a lot," he said. "What happens to 16- and 17-year-olds. Should they also be legal?"

Also skeptical is Drew Hunter, president of the Bacchus Network, a national group that helps colleges discourage alcohol abuse. Hunter acknowledged that the drinking age of 21 has not so much altered students' drinking habits as "pushed alcohol off campus," and that "students who want to go out and drink in large quantities are going to do so -- regardless of the drinking age." He also said that McCardell was correct on the situation the law creates: "We're putting a large number of our students in a situation where they break the law on a steady basis."

But Hunter said he did believe that the drinking age has saved lives, especially those of teen drivers.

He also said that his organization supports the current law and that he did not think McCardell would succeed. (One irony: Bacchus, the group favoring the 21-year-old drinking age, receives some financial support from the alcohol industry, and its board includes executives from Anheuser-Busch and Coors. McCardell said that his new group in its push to change the law will not take funds from the alcohol industry. "There will be every temptation, but we are not going to let ourselves be tarred in that way," he said.)

Other experts contest Hunter's view that the public will not be swayed on this issue. Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Research Center, at Northern Illinois University, said that while large majorities of Americans have reported being concerned about underage drinking, focus groups have found that this view is a nuanced one. When Americans say that they oppose underage drinking, they are thinking of high schools and middle schools, Haines said, not "a 19-year-old who is married and working full time, a 20-year-old in the military, or a 19-year-old in college."

Haines, whose group has argued that scare tactics about alcohol abuse fail to reach students, said he was pleased to learn of McCardell's new campaign. "I think the 21-year-old drinking age is a disastrous failure," he said. It has forced many colleges to avoid communication with students of the sort that might actually lead to healthier behavior, he said. "Many colleges are worried that if they talk about alcohol with their freshmen, they will be charged with condoning underage drinking," he said.

Honesty is badly needed if colleges are going to reach students, he said.

McCardell said he knows some will make fun of a former president for crusading on this issue, but he also spoke about the importance of honesty. "This is not about giving more beer to young people," he said. "This is about opening our eyes to the social reality around us."

 

 

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