Amethyst Initiative Questions 21-Year-Old Drinking Age

University Presidents Sign Initiative to Open Dialogue on College Drinking


Underage college students continue to drink despite risks associated with alcohol and knowledge of the law. (Craig Calefate/The Observer)

Published: October 2, 2008

Four out of five college students drink, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Almost all university officials agree that college drinking is a problem, and some contend that the drinking age of 21 has worsened the dilemma of alcohol use by pushing underage students to engage in dangerous binge drinking and secretive pre-gaming.

One hundred and twenty-nine college presidents and chancellors have signed their name to a “public statement” which declares that “it’s time to rethink the drinking age” and that “21 is not working.”  Dubbed the Amethyst Initiative, the movement “supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year-old drinking age.”

While Jesuit schools such as St. Joseph’s, Fairfield and Santa Clara signed the initiative, along with non-religious schools like Duke, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and Drew, Fordham did not.

Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, stated that he believes that the problem of student drinking is a result of college culture, not of the 21-year-old drinking age.  A press release created by Fordham’s director of communications, Bob Howe, in conjunction with McShane, states that proponents of the Amethyst Initiative “are well-meaning, [but may] be abdicating their responsibility to students.” According to the press release, “lowering the drinking age also sends the wrong signal about what the University considers healthy, responsible behavior” and is “contrary to the Jesuit ethic of caring for the whole person.”

In contrast, Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., the former dean of Rose Hill and the current president of Fairfield University, “[applauds] the Amethyst Initiative, [which] invites us all to re-examine how we are helping our young people learn to handle the consumption of alcohol responsibly.”

According to MSNBC, the drinking age was 18 in most states up until 1984, when Congress “threatened…to withhold 10 percent of federal highway funds from states that did not prohibit selling alcohol to those under the age of 21.”

If the drinking age were 18, college students “would binge drink less,” said Chris Barlow, FCLC ’10, “because they wouldn’t feel the need to hide it as much. If you could walk down the hallway of McMahon with a beer in your hand, you wouldn’t have to chug that beer to finish it before you left your room,” he stated.

Many remember the college students of the 1970s and earlier, when the drinking age was 18, drinking more responsibly than students do now.  “Drinking practices have changed,” said Megan Siemers, FCLC assistant director for programming, “in that students now are facing more negative consequences related to drinking.” Back when the drining age was 18, Siemers said, “people did not abuse alcohol as much as they do now.”  Keith Eldredge, FCLC dean of students, agreed, “Binge drinking now is more prevalent than it was 20 years ago.”

“I think college students would drink less if the drinking age was lower,” said Kim Siletti, FCLC ’10.  “Because students can’t legally drink [or buy alcohol] when they go out, that encourages binge drinking because you don’t know when the next time you’re going to be able to [get alcohol] is,” she said.

Some supporters of the Initiative state that lowering the drinking age would take away some of the mystique and excitement associated with drinking underage. “I’ve had students say that if [the drinking age] was 18, then the hype of it would be over…students say when they turn 21, ‘What’s the point [of drinking]?  Where’s the rush?’” Siemers said.
“I think [lowering the drinking age] would take some of the excitement away from drinking for college students,” said Siletti, “but it will still be there [to some extent] because you’re away from your parents and you want freedom.”

Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., dean of FCLC, stated that he is in support of “reopening the discussion [of the drinking age]” but is not necessarily in support of lowering the drinking age.  “There are real problems about the misuse of alcohol,” Grimes stated. “…Now, drinking is done behind closed doors.  If there is any relaxation of [drinking laws] there must be a corresponding [increase in the] severity on the laws of driving while intoxicated,” he said.  “It’s not a religious issue as far as I see it…drunkenness has been treated as sinful, but not alcohol,” Grimes said.

“As the president of a…Jesuit university, I take very seriously the responsibility to care for young adults, many of whom are away from home for the very first time,” said Rev. Timothy R. Lannon, S.J., president of St. Joseph’s University.  “I would be remiss to not support an initiative that calls our nation’s attention to what is happening on our college campuses in alarming numbers.  What is best for our students, for their social and intellectual development? Will our students be safer if they drink legally? We are saying that it is time to engage in this conversation,” Lannon said.

Eldredge said that he is “in support of a national conversation” but said that he is “not convinced” that lowering the drinking age to 18 would necessarily solve college drinking problems.  “People say ‘look at Europe, they don’t have a 21-year-old drinking age,’” he stated, “but rates of binge drinking there aren’t any better.”

Research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAAA) supports this, stating that France, Italy and the United States have similar rates of binge drinking among teens.

“Part of the debate is that students [under 21] can’t consume alcohol in McMahon Hall.  [Because of that], students choose to drink in a more private and secretive way,” said Eldredge. “Some students will take a number of shots [quickly], [if they are going] someplace where alcohol won’t be served to them.”  If they were legally allowed to drink, Eldredge stated, “Maybe they wouldn’t pre-game and they would spread out their consumption.  There is an argument to make for both sides.”

Eldredge pointed out the fact that moving the drinking age from 18 to 21 made “a huge impact” in the number of motor vehicle-related deaths.  The National Institutes of Health’s Fact Sheet for Alcohol-Related Deaths states that “in the mid-1970s, alcohol was a factor in over 60 percent of traffic fatalities.”  Now, “alcohol-related deaths per population have been cut in half, with the greatest proportional declines among persons 16-20 years old.” Eldredge continued, “But what are the tradeoffs if a higher drinking age is causing other problems?”

Eldredge also pointed out the fact that numerous studies have shown that the younger people are when they begin drinking, the greater the likelihood that they will one day abuse alcohol. Siemers said that, in her opinion, one disadvantage to lowering the drinking age is that it might “set the bar lower” for people to start drinking.  “If the drinking age is 21 and kids are drinking at 18 and younger, if the drinking age becomes 18, are we then going to have students drinking at 10, 11, 12 years old?” she wondered.
“Personal responsibility is something that every young person needs to learn,” said Chris Farhood, a psychotherapist who treats New York City college students, some with drinking problems.  Farhood stated that she is in support of the Amethyst Initiative and feels that along with lowering the drinking age, support systems and better education plans should be developed. “Parents should be talking to their kids about drinking from a young age,” said Farhood.  “Teach them that it’s okay to have a glass of wine at dinner or a beer at a barbecue, but it’s not cool to be drunk and throwing up.”
“I don’t think the government should be putting their nose into that business—legislating the age does not help the situation,” she said. “There’s a problem with how we approach [the idea] of a ‘whole person’ for an 18 year old—they can marry, vote, go to war, but they can’t drink.”

Mike Fabano, FCLC ’10 said, “I don’t think the problem is the drinking age.  It’s that people don’t have any practice.  We have to practice for everything else in our life,” he said, citing the fact that teens must show that they can safely handle driving a car before they are given a license to do so.  “I think it’s a responsibility for families.  If you think your child is responsible enough, introduce them to [alcohol],” he said.

Farhood said that, in her experience, students who have not experimented with drinking or attempted to learn their limits in high school “have problems” with alcohol once they “get away from home and away from parental supervision.”  She said, “I have had patients say ‘I did all that [drinking] when I was a teenager—then I went to college and wanted to settle down and get to work,’” she said.

So how would a lower drinking age affect FCLC?  As for FCLC’s alcohol education programs, Eldredge said, “We would be able to focus all our efforts on harm reduction, as opposed to telling kids not to drink at all…It’s hard to say now ‘You’re underage, but drink safely,” because we [need to enforce] the law.”

If the drinking age were 18, “students would not be hiding [their drinking] as much,” said Siemers.  “I don’t know if it would be safer, because they might just be doing the same thing.”

“The great thing about the Amethyst Initiative,” said Siemers, “is that it is helping students to realize what their own personal views are in regard to alcohol use. Students should challenge each other and engage in conversation.” As far as drinking goes, according to Siemers, “there should be more talk, less action!”