Last year about this time, a group of more than 100 college presidents caused a stir by launching a push to lower the drinking age to 18. Their goal: to cut down on the pernicious, sometimes lethal problem of binge drinking on campus.

The presidents called it the Amethyst Initiative, named after the ancient Greek words that mean “not intoxicated.” The college leaders hoped that a lower drinking age would encourage more responsible drinking on campus. That it would douse the forbidden thrill of bingeing before a frat party or other public appearance.

What are the Greek words for, “You’ve got to be kidding”?

We said then that those college presidents were right to be alarmed about underage drinking on campus. But we also said cutting the legal drinking age is the wrong answer. It would encourage more alcohol abuse, not less, and could spill over into more drinking among even younger kids.

Now there’s a sobering new study that should spur those presidents to rethink Amethyst.
Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry state that raising the drinking age to 21 has been largely effective in reducing binge drinking everywhere, except – you guessed it – on college campuses.

The study says that among men between 18 and 20 who were not in college, binge drinking plummeted by more than 30 percent from 1979 to 2006. At the same time, such drinking among college men was “as prevalent as ever,” it says.

There was no similar difference between underage women in college or not. But there was a sharp surge in binge drinking – defined in this study as five or more drinks in a row in the past 30 days – among college women age 21 to 23. The study doesn’t delve into explanations for these disturbing trends. But we’d guess there are several reasons that the anti-binge drinking message isn’t penetrating college campuses.

For one thing, young adults who aren’t in college are more likely to still be living at home, and therefore under at least some parental monitoring. They’re also more likely to have jobs. It’s a lot easier to skip a class in the morning to nurse a hangover than it is to call in sick to work. Bosses aren’t likely to be as forgiving as the Psych 101 prof.

Whatever the reasons, the lesson couldn’t be clearer for the college presidents who think lowering the drinking age would solve their campus drinking problems.

It won’t.

The best way to curb binge drinking on campus isn’t to make it easier for kids to knock back a few legally. It’s to enforce local laws against serving or selling to minors. And making sure that residence hall advisers are riding herd, not looking the other way. And finding innovative ways to convince college kids that they risk their health, and their lives, with heavy drinking. That it’s not cool.

Kids in high school are getting the message: Binge drinking rates among them are at historic lows, off more than one-third from the peak years of 1979-83, the report said.

But then they go to college, and … sign up for Drinking 101.


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