Initiative aims to curb the binge

Ben Wolford

Kent State community debates controversy over drinking age

Photo Illustration by Adam Cade | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Scott Dotterer laid photocopied newspaper clippings across the table.

One was a Kent State student who killed two people in an alcohol-related accident. Another was a Kent State student killed in 2006 by a drunk driver. And another in 2007.

“We see too much of this,” said Dotterer, coordinator of student health promotion.

That notion is shared across the board, but Dotterer and organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving are at odds with university presidents and some students on what the solution is.

In July 2008, John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, and a group of other college presidents created the Amethyst Initiative, aimed at starting a debate on lowering the drinking age.

Since its inception, the Amethyst Initiative has gathered 129 supporting signatures from college presidents across the country, including Ohio State University, Duke University and Dartmouth College.

President Lester Lefton has not signed his name and said he would not consider it.

But he does support lowering the drinking age.

“I’ve never understood why the drinking age is 21,” Lefton said. “Clearly, our European counterparts have a more reasoned approach to alcohol consumption amongst their younger citizens.”

In France, Germany and Italy, the drinking age is 16. In England and Spain it’s 18.

In the United States, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 raised the lowest age to purchase and publicly possess alcohol from 18 to 21. The legislation came about after teenage drinking and driving became a national issue.

“Since the 21 law was enacted, alcohol-related crashes between 16- and 20-year-olds have decreased by 64 percent,” said Julie Leggett, executive director for the Northeast Ohio affiliate of MADD.

MADD has taken an outspoken stance against the Amethyst Initiative.

“The data speaks for itself,” Leggett said. “We want those lives to continue to be saved.”

But some students wonder whether lowering the drinking age wouldn’t make alcohol more accepted and consequently less abused.

“I think it would cut down on the novelty of it,” said Katie Wolf, sophomore fashion merchandising major. “It’s a good idea, but it’s never going to happen.”

Ashley Byrne, freshman chemistry major, said making alcohol less taboo could be beneficial.

“I think people do it because it’s illegal,” she said.

Scott Olds, professor of health education promotion, has 19- and 21-year-old daughters, and understands the other side.

“I understand students feel that it is quite arbitrary to select that age number,” he said. “And I don’t disagree; I think it is arbitrary.

“But I think to disagree with the impact it has on saving lives is ignoring the science.”

He and Dotterer have conducted alcohol-consumption research at Kent State and have watched the number of college students who drink, and the amount they drink, rise between 2003 and 2008.

They agree that the presidents who signed on to the Amethyst Initiative were probably at their last whim in dealing with the continuing and increasing problem.

“I think what’s happening is these college presidents are frankly tired of dealing with this issue,” Olds said. “I think they’d like it to go away, and this is a way to do it.

“But I really don’t think this is a very responsible approach.”

Olds said lowering the drinking age would force law enforcement to turn to high schools, where the new demographic of underage drinking offenders would be.

But as organizers of the Amethyst Initiative have noted on its Web site, “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ – often conducted off-campus – has developed.”

Supporters also argue that the age of 21 is not an infallible benchmark of maturity – and Lefton agrees.

“Young women and men serve our country,” he said. “They’re allowed to marry, they’re allowed to own property, incur debt, have children, serve in the PTA, but to not allow them to responsibly drink alcohol has always seemed foolish to me.”

Still, Lefton doesn’t think he’s in a position to speak for all of Kent State on the matter.

“I have to represent the whole university. I have been speaking to you as an individual and as a psychologist,” he said. “This is a political issue. College presidents are not going to get this law changed.”

Whether they do or don’t, Dotterer said changing the law won’t solve anything.

“Changing the drinking age law or keeping it the same,” he said, “any way you look at it, there are always going to be ways people are going to get access to alcohol.”

Contact administration reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].