Elizabethtown College President Calls for Discussion on Reducing Underage Alcohol Abuse

The Amethyst Initiative is a group of college and university presidents across the United States who believe that "the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses."

Amethyst Initiative presidents promote public discussion about the unintended consequences of current alcohol policies, including the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and invites new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use. For more information, visit Amethyst Initiative and Choose Responsibility

There are a number of possible policy changes that might be discussed. They include such things as possibly:

  • issuing drinking learner permits to adults aged 18 or older, similar to driving learner permits;
  • permitting adults serving in the armed forces to consume alcoholic beverages under certain conditions;
  • permitting states to develop their own programs to reduce alcohol abuse without penalizing them for doing so by withholding highway funding;
  • lowering the drinking age to 18, 19 or 20;
  • some combination of the above;
  • considering ideas not yet proposed.

There is much resistance to even discussing possible options for a variety of reasons. Many organizations and professionals have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Some simply don't believe any change is needed. Some believe the questionable theory that drinking in moderation harms developing brains, a notion disproven by the experience of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, French, and others around the world. Some doubt the maturity of young adults. Some don't think we can improve what we're already doing. A surprisingly large number favor the de facto prohibition of alcohol as a way to prevent alcohol-related problems. And the list goes on.

Therefore, it's a brave person who publicly calls for discussions about how we might reduce alcohol abuse among young people. However, a large number of the presidents of some of our leading colleges and universities have courageously taken such a stand by signing the Amethyst Initiative to do exactly that.

President Theodore E. Long of Elizabethtown College has explained that:

Simply put, current laws — created with the admirable goal of curtailing youthful drinking and its abuses — are not working as intended. Today, underage men and women who want to drink can readily secure and consume alcohol, and they do so regularly in clear disregard of the law. What the law actually does is to drive underage drinking underground, separating it from the moderating influence of adults with more experience and wisdom. On their own, underage drinkers too often drink to excess, frequently harming themselves or others as a result.

Dr. Long says that "we raise this issue because we believe we could address the issue more successfully under different legal circumstances. Currently, when we engage students first-hand in settings where they use alcohol, we must act as enforcers of the laws they seek to break. If instead we could actively model responsible behavior at the point of their decision-making, or intervene to promote healthy choices rather than to police their law-breaking, we could shape their behavior more positively, limit bingeing, and reduce its harmful consequences."

He agrees with many of his colleagues that

Obviously, changing the drinking age alone will not solve the problems of irresponsible drinking. It is part of a web of social, cultural and policy factors that should be considered together in order to address this issue most effectively. To be effective, any change would need to be aligned with and supportive of those complementary influences as well. Reopening discussion of the drinking age is therefore just a starting point for a larger conversation about what we as a society must do to change the destructive equation of youthful drinking and to better support young people in building the habits of responsibility.

The college president attempts to correct widespread misperceptions:

Contrary to much press coverage, Amethyst presidents have not taken any position on what changes might work best and do not have any specific legislative agenda to advance. We are united only in the view that current law should be reconsidered because of its adverse, unintended consequences on the drinking behavior of young people and on our capacity to promote responsible behavior regarding alcohol. Undertaking the public dialogue we propose will enable us to highlight both the limitations and the advantages of current policies and to determine together how best to achieve objectives that are widely shared in our society. As concerned parents, educators and citizens, we can do no less for the next generation and for our society.

This is a demonstration of true leadership.


  • Thomas E. Long. We need to talk about drinking laws again, Lancasteronline.com, September 7, 2008.

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