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Colleges resist lower drinking age

Instead, administrators work to reduce students’ consumption

A mini-movement among college presidents to consider a lower drinking age isn’t catching on among university leaders in the Inland Northwest.

None of the college presidents in Eastern Washington or North Idaho has signed the Amethyst Initiative, an effort that declares the 21-year-old drinking age a failure and urges lawmakers to consider changing it. Some 129 college presidents have signed the initiative, including the top leaders at Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State.

But presidents at regional institutions aren’t buying it.

Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University – which has battled problems with alcohol on campus over the years – said lowering the drinking age would result in more binge drinking and related problems.

“The fact of the matter is, if you reduce the drinking age from 21 to 18, it’s simply going to push the problem downward” in terms of age, he said.

Some 18- and 19-year-olds now drink before they’re legal, but “if you move it down to 18, you’re going to have 16-year-olds doing that,” he said.

Supporters of a lower drinking age argue that the law is so widely ignored that some kind of reconsideration is due.

They say the higher drinking age results in widespread underground drinking by young adults, a culture frequently marked by bingeing and drunken driving.

It would be safer, they argue, to allow 18-year-olds to drink on or around campuses and with other adults.

Mary Pat Treuthart, a Gonzaga University law professor who’s researched and written about the issue, said the Amethyst Initiative is simply calling for a public dialogue about a policy that isn’t working.

“This is a colossal public policy failure,” she said. “The rate of noncompliance with the drinking age is upwards of 75 percent. … Why can’t we at least talk about this?”

‘Behind the wheel’

The initiative has started controversies all over the country. In particular, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other highway safety advocates have called for the presidents who’ve signed the initiative to reconsider. They say the higher drinking age saves hundreds of lives a year by reducing drunken driving.

Whitworth University President Bill Robinson said he believes the law has some deterrent effect, though it’s not a complete solution. He also said that the questions of drinking and driving are particular to each campus – at a dry campus such as Whitworth, students would have to leave to drink somewhere, even legally.

“Then they have to get back to campus,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of putting a lot more young people behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking.”

Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo said the presidents of Washington’s six public universities haven’t discussed the proposal among themselves. But he doesn’t care much for the idea.

“The issue is changing people’s behavior” to discourage bingeing and other drinking problems, Arevalo said. “And you don’t change behavior by lowering the drinking age.”

Arevalo said he worries that lowering the legal age would entice more high school students to drink, and lead to more drunken driving – particularly if EWU students leave Cheney to do their drinking.

“The issue for us becomes the driving back and forth between campus and establishments around Spokane,” he said. “The moment you lower the age, you increase the number of students who are eligible to do so.”

Age not the issue

Pacific Lutheran President Loren Anderson is the only Washington college president to sign the petition so far, and Robert Hoover – the former University of Idaho president and current leader of the College of Idaho – is the only one in Idaho to do so.

Interim University of Idaho President Steven Daley-Laursen said the UI’s approach, as a state institution, is to adhere to the law and focus on educating students and keeping them safe. The Rev. Robert Spitzer, GU’s president, has not signed the initiative, and he deferred questions to administrators who’ve been working to develop a comprehensive approach to combat drinking problems.

The Gonzaga effort, called Project REAL, includes a range of efforts to educate students about drinking, encourage them to avoid it or do it responsibly, and push the idea that frequent heavy drinking is more rare among college students than is believed.

Sue Weitz, vice president for student life, said the problem is complex and cultural, and that focusing on the drinking age is beside the point.

“Lowering the drinking age is really a secondary concern, rather than looking at harm reduction,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 35 or 21 or 18, the amount you drink and the behavior you exhibit when you drink is the issue.”

GU’s program has been identified as a model for other colleges, and it appears to be working with some students. Surveys after two years of the program showed that 10 percent fewer students were drinking, and that 4.6 percent fewer reported having five or more drinks at a time.

Still, there is a lot of drinking among young people on campuses. National estimates suggest that around three-quarters of young people have their first drink before graduating from high school, and a quarter to half of all college students binge-drink on a regular basis – though those rates have flattened or declined over the past decade, federal statistics show.

A recent University of Texas study found that the average 21st birthday party for college students includes 12 drinks for the birthday boy, and nine for the birthday girl.

The problems that follow are well-known. Students at Northwest universities have suffered lifelong injuries falling from balconies while partying; counselors cite persistent problems with date rape and sexual assaults linked to drinking; violence and other illegal behavior often go hand-in-hand with heavy drinking.

Clandestine culture

Supporters of the Amethyst Initiative say that well-meaning programs like Gonzaga’s – and similar efforts at virtually every college – have shown relatively limited progress. They say that the 21-year-old drinking age has unintentionally driven 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drinkers into unsafe situations.

“A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking often conducted off-campus has developed,” the initiative states. “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

GU’s Treuthart said there’s a difference between allowing 18-year-olds to drink and opening the door to more heavy drinking and DUIs. She said the legal and social approach to the problem could focus more on “harm reduction” – targeting destructive behaviors and habits, rather than age.

“Eighteen is the age we have chosen for everything else – being able to buy a gun, being executed, piloting an airplane,” she said. “It’s intriguing that we have chosen a different age for drinking alcohol, in any amount.”

‘Animal House’ no more

One of the key strategies used by people at the GU program, at WSU, and elsewhere around the country is the emphasizing of “social norms” – telling students that heavy drinking is not as common as they think.

Karen Contardo, manager of GU’s student wellness resource center, said many students who get into trouble for drinking think everyone’s drinking as much as they are. Her program has gathered information about GU students’ drinking, and found that around half had not consumed five drinks at any one point in the previous two weeks – the measure for binge-drinking. Among students who did drink, they had 4.8 drinks over four hours.

“We can explain to them that not all students are drinking all the time,” she said. “The old ‘Animal House’ movie is not true.”

Robinson said he’d be concerned that a lower drinking age would hurt Whitworth’s ability to create an educational living environment on campus for freshmen. If 18-year-olds could drink, the college would be competing with local bars for their time and attention.

He also said college presidents have a wide range of social issues they can choose to get involved in, and this one’s not his priority.

“Right now, there are so many great causes – peace and poverty,” he said. “I want to be known for fighting for the poor and fighting for the disadvantaged … not trying to change the drinking age.

“For me, it’s not where I want to put my energy.”

Reporter Dan Hansen contributed to this report. Contact Shawn Vestal at or (509) 459-5431.