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It certainly hasn’t been a dry year, especially on college campuses. And with that in mind this summer, presidents and chancellors from colleges and universities across the country introduced the controversial Amethyst Initiative to the public, calling for a reassessment of the current minimum legal drinking age of 21. As of this writing, 130 leaders in higher education have signed on. While the signatories prescribe no single policy solution, they do agree that current age restrictions are not working effectively and could even be encouraging certain harmful drinking behavior on college campuses. Unfortunately, University President Drew G. Faust is late to arrive to the party.
John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College, spearheaded the Initiative, which now counts presidents of Dartmouth, Duke, Tufts and Johns Hopkins among its members. But the group has met substantial backlash from advocacy groups and members of the media. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has launched a campaign against the initiative and its members, claiming that the age-21 laws have saved an estimated 25,000 lives through reduced traffic fatality rates (TFRs) among teenagers. Attacking the Amethyst Initiative itself, however, ignores its very goal of promoting informed discussion and imagining creative solutions. Furthermore, recent research calls into question MADD’s lofty claims.
The passage of the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA) in 1984 placed pressure on states to adopt a minimum legal drinking age of 21 by October 1986, or sacrifice 10 percent of their allocated federal funding for highway construction. Many states had lowered their drinking age from 21 to 18 in the 1970s—coinciding with the passage of the 26th Amendment by which citizens age 18 and older were granted voting rights. A primary aim of the FUDAA was to reduce typically high teenage TFRs by limiting access to alcohol for this age group. TFRs for 16-19-year-olds tend to be approximately double those for people 25 or older. By 1988, all states and the District of Columbia had capitulated and adopted a drinking age of 21.
The coercive implementation of the uniform minimum age has, contrary to popular belief, probably had very little influence on saving lives on the road. In fact, Harvard economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum ’07 have published a working paper which suggests that any correlation between 21 laws and reduced TFRs is only statistically relevant in states that had voluntarily increased their drinking ages before the FUDAA was passed. Among states that adopted the 21 minimum because of the government incentive, there has been no measurable reduction correlation with teen TFRs. Moreover, decreases in TFRs over the past two decades may be largely attributed to innovations in medical care and automotive safety. Their research supports the argument that individual states should have more liberty in determining their own alcohol restriction policies.
It is time we stopped pretending the 21 law is a wondrous panacea for our problems. With that in mind, the time has come to experiment with more creative solutions. Among suggestions proposed by the Amethyst Initiative and other economics and policy experts include instituting mandatory alcohol training courses, graduated alcohol licenses, or even taxing younger drinkers, in conjunction with lowering the drinking age.
According to the Amethyst authors, now is the perfect time to engage the public and our elected representatives in this debate. In 2009, Congress will have to reapprove the transportation bill, providing a chance to remove the clause that threatens withholding of highway funding for states with minimums beneath 21. Removing this counterincentive could be the first step to allowing state legislatures the freedom to look toward alternative alcohol policies.
Last year, the drinking culture at Harvard received particular attention by the administration, this paper of record, and the Undergraduate Council, among other groups. Notably, many recurring concerns on our campus, such as student safety, underage drinking liability and increased popularity of binge drinking, are shared with the authors of the Amethyst statement. The 21 law is not working, and to promote a well-informed discussion nationally and encourage more effective legislative action, President Faust should sign the Amethyst Initiative.
James M. Wilsterman ’10, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is an economics concentrator in Lowell House.
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