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To Drink or Not To Drink

College presidents call for debate of drinking age.



Eighteen-year-olds in America can vote, join the military, and serve on juries, but law bars them from having a beer.

That's the logic behind a debate to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 in an effort to curb binge drinking on college campuses. Over 100 college presidents across the country, including Rhodes College president William Troutt, have signed a statement calling for dialogue on the issue.

Called the Amethyst Initiative, the movement to rethink the drinking age is led by Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit group that encourages discussion on empowering 18- to 20-year-olds in making decisions about alcohol.

"[The Amethyst Initiative] is not a call for policy change," Troutt said in a prepared statement. "It is a compelling call for dialogue because too many of America's young people are losing their lives, ruining their lives, or not living up to their full potential and the common cause is alcohol abuse."

Proponents of lowering the drinking age say the current 21-year-old drinking age pushes adolescent drinking behind closed doors and away from the supervision of parents or authority figures.

"Drinking that requires one to find a dark corner or travel to a remote location is drinking that puts not only the drinker, but also the innocent citizen, at greater risk," reads the Choose Responsibility website.

Peyton Bell, a 22-year-old Rhodes senior, supports lowering the drinking age even further — to 16, which he says would teach teens responsible drinking habits.

"Right now, law-abiding parents don't let their kids drink around them, so they can't drink openly until they go away to college. That's when they binge drink," Bell says.

Supporters of a lower drinking age also point to many European countries, which allow drinking at 18.

But Laura Dial, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, says a 2003 study showed higher rates of binge drinking and youth intoxication in Europe.

Before 1984, many states in the U.S. set the legal drinking age at 18, but that was raised nationwide after Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which denied federal highway dollars to states that did not raise the drinking age to 21.

"Statistics show that raising the drinking age has saved about 25,000 lives since it was passed [in 1984]," Dial says, citing a study on drunk-driving deaths.

Casey Roman, a recent Rhodes graduate and bartender at the school's on-campus pub, doesn't support a lower drinking age either. Roman believes campus environments influence the college binge-drinking problem.

"You may not have a class until 11 a.m., so you don't have responsibilities very early in the day. You don't go out and binge drink if you have to work or do something early in the morning," Roman says. "In college, we set up the environment for binge drinking."

For now, the discussion is simply that. There's currently no legislative backing behind the Amethyst Initiative.

"I don't think many legislators would sign on to this," Dial says. "There's no good science or examples to show that lowering the drinking age would be some kind of cure-all."

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