Washington Post Misses the Point

Following the thread of discussion regarding the drinking age, the Washington Post recently ran an editorial sharply criticizing the Presidents’ plan to even discuss the drinking age. While I appreciate that reasonable people might disagree about the issue (reasonable, but dumb, people), the Post’s tone in the editorial is somewhat unsettling (“no one can disagree on this issue! it’s preposterous!” is essentially their tone). Their editorial makes no mention of even the possibility that 18 year old’s may possess the right to drink due to their vulnerability to the draft or even, as if it means anything, the fact that they are adult citizens. Anyway, I’ll let you be the judge:

COLLEGE OFFICIALS who have signed on to the provocative proposition that the legal drinking age of 21 isn’t working say that they just want to start a debate. Perhaps when they get done with that, they can move on to whether Earth really orbits the sun. Any suggestion that the current drinking age hasn’t saved lives runs counter to the facts.

More than 100 presidents and chancellors from such top universities as Duke and Johns Hopkins say it’s time to rethink the drinking age, contending it has caused “a culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking.’ ” The statement does not specifically advocate reducing the drinking age, but many who signed it say they thought legal drinking should begin at 18.

Health and safety experts have reacted with dismay, because raising the drinking age has saved many lives. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed 49 studies published in scientific journals and concluded that alcohol-related traffic crashes involving young people increased 10 percent when the drinking age was lowered in the 1970s and decreased 16 percent when the drinking age was raised. The retreat from a lower drinking age translates into some 900 lives saved each year among 16- to 20-year-olds. Those who would argue that other factors, such as safer cars, are responsible should take a good look at numbers posted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving showing alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 16- to 20-year-olds decreasing 60 percent between 1982 and 2006 while non-alcohol-related fatalities increased 34 percent.

The college presidents are right about binge drinking. Each year, some 1,700 college students die from causes related to alcohol use; there is also the toll of injuries and sexual assaults fueled by alcohol. But where is the logic of solving the underage drinking problem by lowering the age even more? Henry Wechsler, the Harvard expert whose studies of binge drinking popularized the phrase, put it best, comparing lowering the drinking age to “pouring gasoline to put the fire out.”

Work by experts such as Mr. Wechsler, as well as the experience of college officials committed to solutions, shows that strong steps to enforce the law and change the culture can produce results. Instead of talking about lowering the drinking age (and thereby shifting the problem to high schools), colleges should be working to develop better enforcement methods, expand education and counseling, and end pricing practices that make alcohol more accessible and attractive. Then, too, college officials can stop winking at fraternity bashes that, whether they are willing to admit it or not, add to the allure of going off to college.

In response to the article, I posted a comment on the comment board of the newspaper (so I make my opinion clear on the issue and, perhaps, provoke discussion):

While I disagree with the policy analysis of the 21 drinking age (how do you explain the low mortality rates in countries whose drinking age is considerable lower than ours?), the question is not a matter of policy- it is a matter of equal rights. While I understand that the Supreme Court is loathe to recognize age as a suspect classification under the 14th amendment, I nonetheless believe it is a travesty that someone can go to Iraq, be maimed, come home, go to their local watering hole and be denied a drink. Are 18 year old not citizens? Or are they merely children in transition? If they are the latter, then we have a curious way of treating such children- you know, sending them to foreign lands to get shot at.

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3 responses to “Washington Post Misses the Point

  1. I think the Washington Post also misses the motive of Amethyst Initiative (the group of college presidents that brought this issue up) in bringing this issue up.

    I think it’s more to bring attention to the issue of the culture of dangererous binge drinking on college campuses, and that drinking age laws are routinely evaded and uninforced, rather than a serious effort to lower the drinking age.

    Much like Rep. Charles Rangel’s move to bring back the draft. It was about raising awareness that so many legislative “war hawks” don’t send their children to war, and that maybe they’d be more reluctant to vote for war if they did have to. It was never a serious move to bring back the draft.

    The argument “if you’re mature enough to fight in a war at eighteen, you’re mature enough to drink” makes the assumption you’re mature enough to do either at that age. I think maybe we should up the enlistment age to 21, instead. That seems like a better solution to me.

  2. polisciafterparty

    The argument about going to war is only meant to highlight that at eighteen, you are an adult in the eyes of the law. Even if the law stated that you couldn’t enlist until you were 21, the fact would remain that at eighteen, you are a full-fledged “adult” but yet cannot enjoy the full range of rights that come with that designation. Maturity has nothing to do with it, fairness is all that matters- if you are an adult, then you must be granted the full range of benefits (and responsibilities) of adulthood. Plain and simple. We can’t have it both ways.

    – Legal Eagle

  3. polisciafterparty

    Setting aside both of your examples for just a moment, am I the only one who thinks this debate begs the question, “is 18 the right age to grant someone adult citizenship?”

    In other words, is it possible to extend this argument so we may speculate whether the American population might be better off if all the rights, privileges, and obligations granted to “adults” were citizens who are 21 years old?

    Legal Eagle, I would imagine that to a certain degree you disagree with what I’m getting at above. You’re right, it’s unfair that 18-year-old US citizens don’t get to drink while they are inevitably committed to many other responsibilities our government assigns them on their fateful birthdays. Yes, war, full-time undergraduate courseloads, voting, and not being sent to juvey anymore (those were rough days for me, lemme tell you) are harsh concepts that might lead an 18-year-old to believe he should be allowed to pour himself a stiff drink to cope with all of that. However, who’s to say that maybe the drinking age isn’t too old, but rather those obligations given to 18-year-olds are prematurely granted?

    Either way, in the words of Aaliyah (who, interestingly, passed away 7 years ago today), age ain’t nothin but a number: regardless of the drinking age, i really believe that people will react to any reconsideration of the current legislation by continuing to push the envelope and by doing what it takes to reach to the top of the booze tree for that forbidden fruit.

    If the drinking age were lowered to 18, I think the issue of binge drinking would gradually trickle down to a younger demographic of citizens. Maybe that’s something that I would have relished in high school, but that’s only because of the emphasis our society places on the dangers of alcohol, in my opinion. It’s hard to discern whether it’s restricted because it’s scandalous, or vice versa. Either way, the disparity between what constitutes being an adult and a legal drinker is only really unfair because alcohol is, in a way, its own deeply rooted trend — a trend that young people have prized for ages…

    My solution to the widespread drinking problem in our country is inspired by cultures that have cultivated responsible drinking in their younger constituencies by allowing them to choose (and to learn how) to drink alcohol at a young age. Logically, those young adults are so accustomed to the idea of alcohol that, by the time they reach university, they don’t give enough of a damn to go out binge drinking. Thus, I propose that we adopt this framework by starting America’s future leaders on alcohol bright and early: anyone interested in collaborating with me on marketing baby formula made from Natty Ice? -double agent =)

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