President of Eckerd College Calls for Public Discussion of Abusive Underage Drinking

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 Donald R. Eastman, III, of Eckerd College explains that

What the current age limit does is make drinking by those younger than 21 an illegal, furtive, clandestine experience, with little to no chance for adult oversight and care. Government surveys have shown that 51 percent of all young people between 18 and 20 are considered binge drinkers, consuming more than four or five drinks during a single occasion. One wonders what role the current age limit plays in that binge-drinking culture.

Dr. Eastman emphasizes that

Residential liberal arts colleges take the out-of-classroom experience to be just as much a part of an undergraduate's education — and just as much the college's responsibility — as what happens in the classroom. Residential colleges create communities, with faculty and staff deeply involved in the daily lives of their students. Our goal is to teach young adults to think for themselves, with academic and co-curricular programs built upon the best wisdom available about their developmental needs and urging them to make choices that enhance their own, and others', lives.

But the 21-year-old drinking age limit arbitrarily divides our community and, much worse, robs us of the chance to create a culture that encourages young people to drink responsibly, if they wish to drink, in a safe environment. What the current law does is send those under 21 who want to drink off campus into a world that takes their money and ignores the rest.

Now I am not absolutely sure lowering the drinking age to 18 will be an unalloyed better deal for my students — maybe it ought to be raised — but I am certain that rethinking this important cultural issue, given all the problems of the current environment, is long overdue. That's all the Amethyst Initiative asks for — to reopen the conversation, a conversation, by the way, that is not simply about alcohol but about good parenting, proactive schools and the development of responsible drinking behaviors in young adults.

The steps we as a society have taken in the past 25 years to address underage drinking are insufficient. A law enforcement system treating underage drinkers as criminals and a federal system that directs funds to highways based on a state's drinking age do little to teach young adults responsible behavior toward alcohol. We shouldn't think that because fewer young adults die from alcohol-related deaths when the drinking age is 21 versus when it was 18 that we have met our responsibilities. Too many young adults, under and over 21, continue to die each year due to alcohol-related deaths. The solutions to the problems we face need to go far beyond a drinking age limit. Since we are so far from perfect now, how can we not reopen a conversation this vital?

President Eastman demonstrates true leadership.


  • Donald R. Eastman, III. Lowering the drinking age: Let's keep the dialogue open, St. Petersburg Times, August 25, 2008.

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