Abstinence Message Is Not Working

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A firestorm has erupted in the wake of a group of higher education leaders’ call for an open debate on the effectiveness of the country’s legal drinking age of 21.

Earlier this week, about 100 college and university administrators, including six from Maryland, stopped short of requesting the drinking age be lowered, but they did say a serious examination of the law is needed in a letter to legislators. The educators say the drinking age is leading to a counterculture of minors binge drinking who seem to spit in the face of authority.

However, a number of organizations, including AAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Students Against Drunk Driving, have criticized the mere suggestion that the drinking age be lowered, saying it saves lives, pure and simple. They contend as many as 900 lives are saved each year as a result. The U.S. government, too, supports the current drinking age. As a matter of fact, in 1984, when the new federal law was signed, the government essentially mandated the individual states to up their minimum age from 18 to 21 by threatening a 10-percent loss in federal highway funding. That essentially meant no state was going to stay at 18 alone and risk millions of dollars in roadwork.

Leaving the politics alone, college and university leaders have every right to be concerned about underage drinking. It’s a problem on every college campus and in many cases can result in serious injury and death in other extreme cases. The college lifestyle is conducive to partying. It’s actually part of the college experience, and it’s no secret alcohol and drugs are readily available to these young adults, whether they are 19 or 21.

The problem is when these adults are not made aware of the consequences of abusing either. In our view, the age limit really has nothing to do with it. The only thing that may or may not accomplish is make it more difficult for underage folks to get their hands on the booze and possibly keep them out of bars so long as they do not have a good fake ID or have sociology class with the bouncer.

Some critics of this week’s call for debating the alcohol age limit suggest these college leaders are dodging their responsibilities to educate and inform their students. The administrators say they are doing their part but it’s just not working, according to the statement, which read, “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge drinking’ – often conducted off-campus – has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

It’s this approach of preaching abstinence that deserves another look, not the drinking age. Sure, educating students on the benefits of abstaining from alcohol use is a prudent course to chart, but it cannot be the only avenue covered by the schools. Nor can it be the only message young people hear from their parents as they grow and mature. Parents need to talk about drinking responsibly and being accountable to their children. Pretending they will not drink is unrealistic. They should just assume they will. Preparing them and giving them information to make sound decisions is a better approach.

The individual college should have a strict policy regarding alcohol use by minors and have the proper means to enforce these rules. They should not turn their heads with an attitude of it can never be stopped. However, they also need to understand college kids are going to party and alcohol is part of that. It’s a difficult balancing act, but one that higher education has the resources to juggle

While we think the debate has already been worthwhile and should continue, there’s little reason to reduce the drinking age to 18. Nonetheless, we think only good can come from this discussion. Clearly, colleges and universities are failing in driving home the message of the dangers of underage drinking. That’s because it’s archaic and unrealistic. As is the case with sex talks, the educational approach of abstinence is best is not working. There needs to be some kind of acceptance that underage drinking is here to stay. A balance between abstinence and accountability needs to be the message, and it must start at home with the parents, long before they are let loose on a college campus to do as they wish.

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