DALLAS — 60 Minutes, CBS’s weekly newsmagazine, aired a story [Feb. 22] on underage drinking focused on the significant problem of binge drinking on college campuses but did not include peer-reviewed scientific data showing lives are being saved on and off the roadways. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) National President, Laura Dean-Mooney, said, “Lowering the drinking age would only make the problem worse among 15, 16 and 17 year-olds, just look at European countries with an 18 law.” Data from European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) in 2003 showed that of 35 European countries, 31 had a higher percentage of 15-year olds who had been drunk in the past year than in the U.S.
Support 21, a broad coalition of stakeholders from science, medical and public health organizations, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the American Medical Association (AMA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), today said they are deeply disappointed that the story fuels an irresponsible debate with lives at stake. The Coalition stands firmly behind the indisputable scientific research found by more than 50 high-quality, peer-reviewed studies that show that the 21 minimum drinking age law saves lives on the roadways. Additionally, the law has been proven to lower underage consumption and save lives off the roads.
Dean-Mooney added, “We are deeply disturbed by the so-called debate over the drinking age that has minimized the lifesaving benefits of the 21 Law. The answer is not to lower the drinking age so that more lives are taken, but to take proven and effective steps to combat the problem. The 21 Law saves lives — 900 a year on the roadways including those 21 and older impacted by underage drinking and driving — and prevents injuries.”
Access on college campuses is a severe problem — where students drink because they can — and they are in a high-risk environment where enforcement of the law varies. In fact, research shows that more than 30 percent of college students abuse alcohol and six percent are dependent on alcohol — rates much higher than for young adults who are not in college.¹ Research also shows that the problem of binge drinking is worse among college age students in college versus those who are not in college. Dean-Mooney said, “Any college president who supports lowering the drinking age is just passing the buck to high school principals.”
Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, said maintaining the legal drinking age at 21 is a socially and medically sound policy that helps parents, schools and law enforcement protect our youth from the potentially life-threatening effects of underage drinking.
“As a three-time university president, I can tell you that losing a student to an alcohol-related tragedy is one of the hardest and heart-rending experiences imaginable,” Shalala said. “It’s not just the loss of life but the loss of the future and that potential that bright, young individual had to offer.”
Since states began setting the legal drinking age to 21, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates over 26,000 lives have been saved. And as one of the most studied public health laws in history, the scientific research from 46 high-quality studies all found that the 21 Law saves lives.² In addition, studies show that the 21 Law reduces causes those under the age of 21 to drink less and to continue to drink less throughout their 20s.³ Of the 5,000 total alcohol-related deaths among 18-24 year-olds, 80 percent, or 4,000, were alcohol-related traffic deaths.4
“Lowering the minimum drinking age to 18 is both misguided and dangerous,” said IACP former President Ronald Ruecker, Director of Public Safety in Sherwood, Oregon. “The worst thing any police officer has to do is knock on a door in the dead of night to tell parents that their child will not be coming home because he or she is a victim of impaired driving. Lowering the national drinking age would inevitably lead to more tragedies for more families.”
The public strongly disagrees with efforts to lower the drinking age. According to a 2008 survey by Nationwide Insurance, 78 percent of adults support 21 as the minimum drinking age and 72 percent believe lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to youth.
Bill Windsor, Associate Vice President of Safety for Nationwide, said, “While advocates argue a lower drinking age will curb teen binge drinking, our survey shows only 14 percent of Americans agree and 47 percent believe it will actually make a huge problem worse. Americans feel so strongly about teen binge drinking more than half say they are less likely to vote for a politician who supports lowering the legal limit or to send their child to a known ’party school.’”
Parents are crucial in addressing this problem and can do more by talking and listening to their son or daughter about the many challenges they will face in college. In fact, research shows that parents should educate children before they reach middle school about the dangers of alcohol. We do not want to pass the problem on to high school principals. Parents need to ask themselves whether they want their kids to have more or less access to alcohol. When searching for the right college, parents should ask questions about the college’s policies on alcohol and what the consequences are for underage drinking while on campus. MADD strongly believes parents should be notified if their son or daughter is disciplined or arrested for alcohol.
Dean-Mooney said, “Underage drinking is not just a youth problem, but an adult problem.” Parents and other adults are the key to reducing underage drinking. MADD is developing a program for parents that will give them proven-effective tools for communicating to their teens about this issue.
Members of the Support 21 Coalition include:
1. Knight et al, 2002
2. Wagenaar & Toomey, 2002
3. O’Malley & Wagenaar, 1991
4. Hingson, Ralph, et al., 2005