Sunday, February 18, 2007

McCardell Proposes a New Legal Drinking Age

The Middlebury Campus
Sonja Pedersen-Green
Original URL:
Issue date: 2/14/07
Media Credit: Dina M. Magaril

Since stepping down from the presidency to resume teaching, McCardell has become a vocal opponent of current minimum drinking age laws. Now he plans to take his criticisms even further.

President Emeritus John M. McCardell, Jr. is preparing to launch a national campaign for legislation that would effectively lower state minimum drinking age laws to 18 for young adults who passed alcohol education courses. To support the campaign, McCardell and his student research team plan to work under the umbrella of a newly-incorporated not-for-profit organization named Choose Responsibility.

The campaign and the new organization come after more than a year of research by McCardell's team, which granted The Campus an interview and preview of their findings just before the Feb break.

"We don't want to be a bunch of people beating our spoons on a highchair saying we want beer," said McCardell, who stressed the "commonsense" logic of his group's proposal.

Rather than simply lowering the national legal drinking age from 21 to 18, Choose Responsibility advocates that states launch alcohol education programs to teach young adults about responsible purchase, possession and consumption. Upon successful completion of an alcohol safety course, a participant could receive a new license granting them full adult privileges to use alcohol at age 18, according to a draft copy of Choose Responsibility's proposal.

The license would be legal in the state in which the 18-year-old is a resident, and in the state in which he or she attends college, if they attend out of state. Individuals who drank illegally before turning 21 or before receiving the 18 year-old license, would delay or jeopardize their eligibility for the privilege.

Grace Kronenberg '06, one of Choose Responsibility's student researchers, equated the program to that of driver's education.

"Learning to drive a vehicle and learning to drink responsibly are remarkably similar processes," said Kronenberg.

Supporters of existing drinking age laws had yet to see Choose Responsibility's proposal, but were skeptical of any campaign to lower the current minimum age.

"We do not think that lowering the drinking age is a good idea," said Barbara Cimaglio, Vermont Deputy Commissioner for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, about the state of Vermont.

Cimaglio said that because the brain develops into the twenties, the possibility for developmental problems arises when alcohol is consumed at a young age.

The Commissioner also cited a Vermont survey on youth and drinking from which she worried that "lowering the drinking age opens up the possibility for more binge drinking."

In a draft summary of Choose Responsibility's research that was released to The Campus, McCardell's researchers outlined a number of reasons they had found current laws ineffective: from an argument that widespread violation of the drinking age breeds disrespect for other laws, to the inconclusive link between the drinking age and drunk driving fatalities.

Citing a National Highway Transit Safety Authority (NHTSA) study, Student Research Assistant Amanda Goodwin '07 said that Choose Responsibility found "there was no demonstrable cause and effect relationship between the 21 year-old drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, but rather, that the decrease in drunken driving fatalities could be attributed to a composite of other factors."

"More important contributing factors include safer motor vehicles, more vigorous law enforcement, shifts in societal trends and fluctuations in the population of relevant age cohorts," said Goodwin.

The decline in traffic fatalities following the lowering of the drinking age is one of the main reasons opponents give for maintaining the current drinking age.

Goodwin said that according to NHTA data, "More lives have been saved in the last two years from seat belts and airbags than in the entire history of the 21-year-old drinking age."

The major challenge Choose Responsibility cites for the importance of its research is the prevalence of binge drinking from college campuses to high schools.

"It's more important how one consumes alcohol than the age at which one consumes alcohol," said Scott Guenther '06.5, another student researcher.

In the draft summary of its report, Choose Responsibility cites statistics that show the mean age of alcohol initiation for young adults has dropped to 14 years of age since the legal age of 21 was implemented. And according to the data, only two of 1,000 underage drinkers are caught violating the law.

McCardell's research team hopes that a well-designed curriculum could teach 18-year-olds who chose to drink, to do so responsibly. An important component of that education, they argue, is the parent.

"The 21-year-old drinking age marginalizes the role of parents in drinking," said Kronenberg. "If the drinking age were 18, then parents would able to play a larger role in teaching 18-year-olds how to drink responsibly."

McCardell's research began with a 2004 New York Times op-ed in which he criticized the United States' 21-year-old minimum drinking age. Following the publication of the op-ed, McCardell and Middlebury College received a grant from the Robertson Foundation.

Since receiving their first grant, the researchers have used College facilities and resources to carry out their work. The group finished a "white paper" this summer and delivered the project to the Robertson Foundation last fall, after which it was given additional grant money to produce more research.

Now working as Choose Responsibility, McCardell's team plans to move out of College facilities and hire more employees to continue its work. McCardell explained that the group's decision to leave the College was made because his team "felt that this is not something the College should take a position on at this time."

The first mission of the non-profit, beyond continued research, will be to test public opinion on the possibility of lowering the legal drinking age to 18 and to raise funds to campaign for supporting legislation. Along with their research, the organization will undertake a fundraising component as well. McCardell said he plans to "broaden their acquaintances" to gauge public reaction and collect feedback.

McCardell suggested the principal opponent to their research could be Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), whose Web page McCardell he said was "more about the evils of drinking than about the evils of drinking and driving." But he also stressed that his organization does not advocate drunk driving, and that proposals for teaching responsible choices should not be at odds with groups like MADD.

Requests for comment from several MADD offices were not returned.

To see their proposal realized in law, Choose Responsibility envisions a grassroots movement. Choose Responsibility has planned a two-step approach for releasing their study and beginning their campaign. The group plans to launch a Web site in mid-March, which it hopes will become the "go-to place" for people wanting to learn about the legal drinking age. Choose Responsibility will then release its full research and report on the current drinking age in the fall.

"There is very little the states can do without changes in Congress," said McCardell, who recognized that there is no state would change its drinking age until the federal government no longer denies highway funding to states that set legal drinking ages lower than 21 years of age. If Vermont were to change its legal drinking age to 18, the state could stand to lose $17 million a year in highway funds.

McCardell has already engaged some policymakers and professors to understand their perspectives on current drinking age laws, and said that those he spoke with reacted positively to his data and seemed welcome to change.

"It's time," Kronenberg, "for a change in the drinking culture of young adults today."

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