Since July, 130 university chancellors and presidents have signed on to a petition calling on U.S. lawmakers to rethink the national drinking age. A stale issue, right?

In our lifetimes we’ve all wondered why, at 18, you can serve in the military, vote and sit on a jury but not have a beer. The Amethyst Initiative has incorporated these arguments (and more) into its petition, but it has done so on an academic and professional level. And it has a cavalry of university presidents on its side.

So maybe it’s not such a stale issue.

The Amethyst Initiative wants us to take a closer look at the efficacy of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. And it explicitly doesn’t ask that Congress lower the drinking age to 18.

In other words, these college presidents just want to talk.

Unfortunately, efforts to critically challenge and review policies like the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act have been stifled by the explosive emotions surrounding this issue. For example, many critics of the Amethyst Initiative — including the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman — accuse the petition’s supporters of advocating underage drinking. Others accuse the petition of trying to shift the responsibility of regulating underage alcohol consumption from university officials to high schools.

These critics’ accusations are straw-man arguments. Though these types of arguments are effective in advertising, lobbying and convincing kindergarteners to share their toys, they aren’t appropriate in an academic debate.

Then why do these arguments always win? Well, try arguing with a mother who has lost a child to a drunk driver. Or try arguing with a university president accountable to both lawmakers and parents.

On campus, the Greek community experiences a similar struggle with emotional responses to alcohol consumption. The Greek system’s current policy — largely created in response to Courtney Cantor’s tragic death nearly a decade ago — is ambiguous, and its enforcement is laughable. As a past fraternity president, I recognize these problems. Yet most attempts to re-evaluate the social policy are met with strong and often overwhelming emotions, and these emotions do little to improve the situation.

Imagine this emotion as a thick cloud of fog, smothering any call for rational debate. Well, Amethyst just bought a pretty big fog light. And they’re shining it at you.

What can you do?

As a source of fresh logic, looking at the actual initiative is a good place to start. But what does it actually say? Nowhere in the statement does the petition advocate reducing the drinking age to 18. And nowhere does it say that regulation responsibility should be shifted to high school administrators. Rather, it calls upon elected officials “to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age; to consider whether the 10% highway fund ‘incentive’ encourages or inhibits that debate; and to invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.”

Innovative. But incomplete.

A possible solution to the petition’s shortcoming would be some new research. Fortunately, research happens to be the lifeblood of universities, and who better to launch and support new research than university presidents.

Many of the numbers are there, produced annually by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. But so far the data has been inconclusive. Critics have pounced on this fact, including Coleman, who cited statistics from the 1970s when she told the Daily that some states’ lowered drinking ages caused higher levels of binge drinking (Coleman responds to Amethyst Initiative, 09/04/2008). She also cited a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimate that the minimum drinking age of 21 has saved more than 1,000 lives a year. But how many students die each year from alcohol poisoning? According to the NIAAA, 1,700.

There is clearly room for new research. How do similar statistics, for example, compare from countries in the European Union, where most national drinking ages are 18? Or Canada? Or China? If you’ve ever visited a foreign country and interacted with its adolescents and young adults, you quickly realize that the U.S. culture of alcohol binge and excess is unique. And it’s clearly dangerous.

At this point, there is little incentive to participate in and fund original research. For a university president to maintain the status quo of a 21-year minimum drinking age is, regrettably, easy.

Ari Parritz can be reached at aparritz@umich.edu.

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