As parents ferry boxes to residence halls and map-clutching students wander wide-eyed around the University of Florida, the start of fall semester always brings a contagious feeling of optimism and excitement.
But, for us, the new academic year also comes with a nagging feeling of dread that we will receive a call reporting the death of a student in an alcohol-fueled incident — a tragedy we have experienced more than once.
A group of 100 university presidents has proposed that lawmakers consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. We oppose this proposal. We do not believe that lowering the drinking age would help solve the largest public health and safety problem here and at other campuses: High-risk, or binge drinking. In fact, evidence tells us that lowering the drinking age would worsen binge drinking.
People often view college drinking as a harmless rite of passage. But the issue is not that students drink. It's that they drink too much.
At least 40 percent of college students report binge drinking — having five or more drinks in one sitting — according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Excessive drinking contributed to more than 1,700 college student deaths and more than 500,000 student injuries in 2001, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Thousands of sexual assaults among college students are also tied to binge drinking.
Nationally, there is evidence the problem remains acute, or may even be worsening. The 100 presidents blame the current drinking age. Their statement reads, "A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' — often conducted off-campus — has developed."
Common sense says that most college students binge drink with their friends or at parties. What's appealing about binge drinking is not its "clandestine" nature but that it's socially desirable. Does anyone really think that if 18-year-olds could buy alcohol, the social passport conferred by heavy drinking would lose its cache?
The research also clearly supports the minimum drinking age of 21 as both discouraging binge drinking and reducing its danger.
Alexander Wagenaar is a professor of epidemiology at the UF College of Medicine who has studied this issue for 30 years, authored 160 papers and written a book on the topic. He conducted extensive studies of drinking among teenagers and young adults in states that raised their drinking age from 18 to 21 in the late 1970s and early '80s, before President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.
"The bottom line," Wagenaar says, "is there's no question that raising the age to 21 had a significant effect in reducing drinking among teenagers and, more important, reducing fatalities" tied to excessive drinking.
Then as now, most drinking fatalities are tied to drinking and driving. Wagenaar's findings are mirrored in other work: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says driving deaths among 18- to 20-year-olds have dropped by 13 percent since the national drinking age was raised to 21.
Moreover, says Wagenaar, it's a myth that youths in Europe, where countries tend to allow teenagers to buy alcohol, have fewer drinking problems. New Zealand lowered its drinking age to 19 a few years ago, he adds, and "their alcohol-related problems among teenagers rebounded 15 percent."
The 100 presidents suggest that a law that is not working should be done away with. But we think the solution is to better support the law.
We have worked hard at the University of Florida on education and prevention efforts targeting binge drinking in the past four years. Among close to a dozen new initiatives, we have begun requiring all first-year students to complete an online alcohol education program; established a safety zone at a major athletic event in Jacksonville; launched a marketing effort playing up the repulsiveness of "sketchy drunk guys;" worked with the city officials on high-risk drinking issues, and restricted alcohol fliers.
These efforts are starting to pay off. The number of UF students who report engaging in high-risk drinking has declined nearly every semester since fall 2004. The referral number of alcohol-related incidents to the UF Office of Judicial Affairs has also declined since fall 2005, as have alcohol-related transports to the hospital.
That said, much more needs to be done. Wagenaar singles out drink specials at bars around college campuses, saying that happy hours and their ilk inevitably lead to excessive drinking. That seems to be the point: Drink specials advertised by Gainesville bars have included "DUI Wednesdays." We would be very heartened to see new laws to curb drink specials.
Wagenaar also says that so-called "overservice" — when bars continue to serve patrons who are visibly intoxicated — must stop. Many states have laws against the practice, but Florida's law is ambiguous, he says. That must change.
Binge drinking is a pervasive and dangerous problem at the nation's universities. Reducing the drinking age to 18 might reduce its visibility by allowing college administrators to shift responsibility to law enforcement or social services, but it won't do anything to solve the problem. For that, we need college leaders, state lawmakers and local officials to work together on discouraging students from binge drinking and reducing their opportunities to do so.
Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida and Patricia Telles-Irvin is vice president of student affairs.