Editor's note: John M. McCardell, Jr., president emeritus at Middlebury College, is founder and president of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit organization that seeks to engage the public in debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age.
John M. McCardell, Jr.
Special to CNN
One year ago, a group of college and university presidents and chancellors, eventually totaling 135, issued a statement that garnered national attention.
The "Amethyst Initiative" put a debate proposition before the public - "Resolved: That the 21-year-old drinking age is not working." It offered, in much the way a grand jury performs its duties, sufficient evidence for putting the proposition to the test. It invited informed and dispassionate public debate and committed the signatory institutions to encouraging that debate. And it called on elected officials not to continue assuming that, after 25 years, the status quo could not be challenged, even improved.
One year later, the drinking age debate continues, and new research reinforces the presidential impulse. Just this summer a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry revealed that, among college-age males, binge drinking is unchanged from its levels of 1979; that among non-college women it has increased by 20 percent; and that among college women it has increased by 40 percent.
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The legal age for alcohol consumption in Brazil is 18 years, but this is not always respected. I think the path is to clarify and educate the young ... the people in general.
What had some effect, here in Brazil, was a strict law made last year.
Dubbed the "Prohibition", the law prohibits the consumption of the quantity of alcohol greater than 0.1 mg of alcohol per liter of air expelled in the breath test for drivers of vehicles, leaving the offending driver subject to suspension of driving license for 12 months and even imprisonment, depending on the concentration of alcohol per liter of blood.
After the 'Prohibition', the things are more controlled both for the young and for adults.
I made the legal drinking age in 1985 just less than a month before it changed to 21 years old. That meant I got to drink legally for about four weeks before I couldn't, and had to wait another year before I could legally consume again. Sound crazy? Yeah, I thought so at the time. During my one-year hiatus from the bars I didn't stop my drinking; it just went underground. I stuck with alcohol, but my dormmates would stuff their pockets with "concealable fun" in the form of drugs that could be inhaled or swallowed on the sly where ever we may have gone. Considering how much of that behavior was going on 25 years ago, I'd expect it would be happening now. Actually, I'd be insane not to.
In the twenty five years since, I've seen the damage irresponsible drinking behaviors have had on society in general. Enough so that I'd encourage states to spend more time on education of drinking, drugs, binging, and addiction than thinking that a law by itself is somehow going to change addictive behaviors.