Insufficient Evidence for Lowering the Drinking Age

Your editorial (“Legislating Under the Influence,” editorial, Nov. 20) supports the conclusions of the Amethyst Initiative and calls for lowering the legal minimum drinking age from 21 to 18. The editors have not done a thorough job of examining the large body of available scientific evidence on the protective effects of the 21-age law. Of all alcohol control policies, the 21-year minimum drinking age is the most frequently studied, and the one deemed most effective. According to the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board “ State Age-21 laws are one of the most effective public policies ever implemented in the Nation. “

The legal drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 in many states in the 1970s and then raised again nationally through the 1984 Minimum Purchase Age Act-two significant policy shifts that have enabled scientists to contrast effects on alcohol-related deaths. During the ensuing years, dozens of studies have been conducted by epidemiologists, economists, and public health and traffic safety experts. Almost all have found that the Age-21 law saves lives—an estimated 900 nationally each year.

Boiled down to its essence, the logic of the argument put forth by the Amethyst Initiative is: making alcohol more easily available will decrease consumption. Such a counterintuitive proposition requires strong evidence to be credible.

The Crimson editors set one recent study against the great mass of evidence supporting the Age-21 law, and conclude that the status of knowledge is “murky.” I fear what their editorials will say about global warming and evolution.

The editors ignore the potential impact of lowering the minimum legal drinking age on high school and middle school students. Drinking has decreased among that group in the past several decades. Reducing the age to 18 may offset this trend by bringing legal alcohol into high schools.

College students have not reached their high rates of binge drinking by themselves. Low prices, heavy advertising, and aggressive marketing campaigns by the alcohol industry have played a strong part. An Age-18 law will make 18 year olds the new legal target.

As to the Amethyst Initiative, though outspoken and prominent, these 120 presidents do not speak for the over 1500 colleges in America. Perhaps frustrated by their inability to reduce binge drinking and the related harms on their campuses, they have prematurely thrown in the towel. Their efforts would be better spent in a broader discussion about what needs to be done to improve the situation.

Cambridge, Mass.
November 25, 2008

The writer is a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health and was a principal investigator of the College Alcohol Study.