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Lower drinking age? Leaders at UM colleges seek debate Bill Fentum, Oct 3, 2008
PHOTO BY MELIHA GOJAK
By Bill Fentum Staff Writer
Syracuse University officials saw years ago that it was time to take the issue of campus drinking more seriously. During the 1998-99 academic year, students at that United Methodist-related institution in New York were involved in more than 900 alcohol violations.
A prevention plan was launched, and alcohol abuse cases on the Syracuse campus were sharply reduced. Today all freshmen there are required to take AlcoholEdu, an online course that teaches them about the risks involved in drinking.
But binge habits—five or more drinks in one sitting for men, four for women—still persist at Syracuse and other schools across the country. Student drinkers under age 21 often “pre-game,” filling up on hard liquor in off-campus apartments before going to parties where they won’t have lawful access.
So in August, Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor joined 129 other leaders at U.S. colleges and universities in signing the Amethyst Initiative, a statement that says lowering the drinking age might give them more options to talk with younger students about responsible drinking.
Sponsored by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., the statement is named for a gemstone that ancient Greeks believed could ward off drunkenness.
“It’s time to rethink the drinking age.... Twenty-one is not working,” the Amethyst Initiative states. “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option [for those under 21] has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.
“Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law. How many times must we relearn the lessons of Prohibition?”
Besides Dr. Cantor at Syracuse, signers include presidents at six other United Methodist-related schools: Duke University in Durham, N.C.; Drew University, Madison, N.J.; Willamette University in Salem, Ore.; Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.; Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.; and Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
All say they signed to open fresh debate on alcohol abuse, rather than to push for a lower legal drinking age.
However, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other members of the “Support 21” Coalition have urged signers to remove their names, pointing to National Institutes of Health data that show alcohol-related traffic deaths among 16- to 20-year-olds dropped by more than half after states raised the age in the 1980s. A 1984 federal law would penalize states with lower drinking ages, cutting their highway funds by 10 percent; the law comes up for Congressional renewal in 2009.
“We’re very troubled that some of the Amethyst signers were from United Methodist institutions,” said the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, who directs programs on substance abuse for the denomination’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). “The Amethyst Initiative is counterproductive, because it blames the age laws but ignores alcohol advertising as a factor in campus drinking.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) limits beer ads in college sports telecasts to one minute per hour. But in 2007 brewers spent nearly $400 million overall on air time during TV sports programs.
“It creates a ‘boys will be boys, girls will be girls’ mentality,” Ms. Abrams said, “and an expectation that alcohol is going to be a part of that. A lot of binge drinking on campuses happens around sports events, so you can’t help but tie the two together.”
The GBCS is a founding member of the Washington-based National Alliance for the Prevention of Underage Drinking. The board also works with the Campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV to advocate for more restrictions on ads.
Anti-alcohol movements are hardly new to the Methodist tradition. John Wesley preached against “buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them.” In the early 20th century the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Board of Temperance lobbied for Prohibition and founded the Methodist Building in Washington that now houses the GBCS.
Paragraph 162J of the United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms the denomination’s “long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” The denomination’s 2008 General Conference passed a resolution urging United Methodist colleges and universities to heed those words.
“We don’t condemn people for drinking; we don’t throw them out of church,” said Jim Winkler, the Church and Society board’s top executive. “But encouraging abstinence points the way to a healthy, holistic life. It’s really the church at its best.”
However a separate resolution passed by the 2004 General Conference and amended in 2008 says the church should also offer guidelines for drinking in moderation, and also help with the treatment and rehabilitation of alcoholics.
“We have a good Wesleyan tradition of justice, an active role to play,” said Gerrit DenHartog, a layman in the Missouri Conference who authored the resolution. “We can’t keep our heads in the sand and talk only about encouraging abstinence, when it’s no longer the norm even among United Methodists.”
About 40 percent of Methodists said they drank no alcohol—only one percent more than the national average—in a 2000 study by the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif. The same percentage said they were moderate drinkers, while others had five or more drinks “occasionally” (17 percent) or “frequently” (3 percent). Only 55 percent of Methodists surveyed knew their denomination discouraged drinking.
Abstinence is also a tough sell to many college students, say officials at schools that support the Amethyst Initiative.
“I don’t think we should ever lose sight of abstinence as a choice,” said the Rev. Tom Wolfe, a United Methodist minister and dean of student affairs at Syracuse University. “But abstinence won’t work as our only option for students because so many of them come to us out of a culture of drinking. It doesn’t begin here.”
Tom Szigethy, a former social worker, was named director of Duke University’s Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Center in July after doing the same work at the University of Connecticut. “For several years,” he said, “I’ve asked incoming college freshmen if they’re already drinking. Consistently about 88 percent of them say yes, and around 47 percent have gotten drunk. So you have a population that is already nurturing a problem.”
Heavy teenage drinkers often don’t seek higher education, Mr. Szigethy added, and they may drink less after getting jobs. But 18- to 20-year-olds who do go to college tend to drink more once they arrive on campus.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen first-year students with sound values who fall into that kind of behavior,” said Daniel Liu, a graduate engineering student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an intern at SMU’s Wesley Foundation. “It’s usually because their worst fear is loneliness, not fitting in.”
Mr. Liu leads the foundation’s First Year Fellowship, sponsored one night a week for freshmen. Students meet in small groups for Bible study, then stay for food, music and alcohol-free interaction.
Mr. Liu also served last year on a 17-member task force appointed by SMU President Gerald Turner—who did not sign the Amethyst Initiative—to explore ways of strengthening the university’s response to substance abuse. In April, Dr. Turner approved most of the team’s plans, including an amnesty program that allows students to seek medical help for drug- or alcohol-related emergencies without fear of academic suspension.
Dr. Turner, however, rejected two recommendations: to let SMU’s fraternity and sorority houses serve alcohol to legal drinkers instead of busing them to off-campus parties, and to open a campus pub. Both ideas were aimed at keeping alcohol use on SMU grounds, where it could be more effectively controlled.
“The spirit of the whole pub option," Mr. Liu said, "was to have a social atmosphere where older classmen spend more time with freshmen and sophomores, and community develops. But the key is to let students know there’s an alternative way to do that—to put out a clear message that you don’t need alcohol to have fun.”