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Educators Spark Dialogue on Underage Drinking

August 19, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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A coalition of college and university presidents recently urged lawmakers to discuss making age 18 the legal limit for drinking as a means to curb alcohol abuse among students. Two university officials take up the controversial initiative that has sparked a national debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than two decades after Congress required states to set the legal drinking age at 21, underage drinking remains a persistent nationwide problem.

Research has shown that more than 1,000 college students die each year in alcohol-related traffic accidents.

Government surveys have shown that 19 percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 years old are considered binge-drinkers, meaning they have more than four or five drinks during a single occasion.

This week, a coalition of more than 100 presidents of colleges and universities — including Ohio State, Duke, Syracuse, and Maryland — signed a letter saying that one idea worth considering would be lowering the legal age to 18.

Well, here to discuss it is S. Georgia Nugent. She’s the president of Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in Ohio. She’s a member of the coalition.

And Joseph Califano, he’s the president of the National Center on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He was secretary of health, education, and welfare during the Carter administration.

Thank you both for being with us.

Georgia Nugent, to you first. Why are you and other college presidents saying the legal age should be reconsidered?

Ensuring students' health, safety

S. GEORGIA NUGENT, president, Kenyon College: Well, Judy, there are a number of reasons, but, first, let me say that what the letter that I and a hundred of my colleagues have signed says is not, "Let's lower the drinking age to 18." I just want to clarify that.

What we have called for is -- I believe the language in the letter is an informed and dispassionate discussion of the 21-year-old legal drinking age.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why do you argue...

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Why did we sign it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: I would say for myself that -- and I believe that many of my colleagues feel the same way -- I would say there are three major reasons that I am interested in and participating in this coalition.

And they are the health and safety of our students; the health of our society, to be honest; and a concern for educational values.

And to just try and sketch very briefly, when I say the health and safety of our students, I'm concerned about the phenomenon of binge-drinking. I think that it may be related to the 21-year-old drinking age.

When I say the health of the society, I'm concerned that these students are not obeying the law and they are kind of growing up as scofflaws, if you will, and with less than a healthy respect for the law.

And we can elaborate on this, but when I say I'm concerned about sound educational values, those would include for me learning from the past -- for example, the past of prohibition -- and ensuring that we have well-vetted and sound research that's made very broadly available.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Califano, why shouldn't there be at least a discussion of lowering the drinking age?

JOE CALIFANO, Center on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse at Columbia University: Judy, the issue isn't in terms of the problem of binge-drinking on college campuses, which is enormous, lowering the drinking age is irrelevant.

What we really need to recognize is, one, 75 percent of the kids that drink and use drugs in colleges were drinking and using drugs in high school. That's a parent problem. Where are the parents?

On the college campuses, basically, college presidents have become Pontius Pilate presidents. They've just washed their hands of this problem. They should change the culture on their campuses. Their campuses -- Kenyon and other colleges, for example, have Newman's Day, in which you drink 24 beers in 24 hours.

And they have to work with the communities. Many of our college campuses are surrounded by bars. Penn State is an example of that, but there are lots of others.

This is a serious problem. We at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University issued a report last year and 12 years ago about this problem called "Wasting the Best and the Brightest." There is a threat to these students.

But changing the drinking age isn't the problem. We have to change the culture on the campus. Parents have to get involved...

Changing binge-drinking culture

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me...

JOE CALIFANO: And we have to...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to President -- let me turn to Georgia Nugent and ask her about that. What about his point...

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... that college presidents like you have a responsibility here to crack down more?

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: I believe we absolutely have a responsibility to work on the problem of binge-drinking. I myself wouldn't characterize that responsibility as best carried out by "cracking down." The evidence...

JOE CALIFANO: Nor would I, incidentally.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: ... shows us that...

JOE CALIFANO: I don't think the issue is cracking down. It's changing the culture.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Well, thank you. And, actually, let me pick up on that, Mr. Califano, because I very much agree with you about the importance of the role of parents and families and the importance of changing a culture.

Where we disagree is how that's best done. And I think the other presidents and I who have signed this initiative feel that one of the things that's missing in the current culture is the opportunity for young people to be educated by an older population about them that is drinking responsibly. We see the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just interrupt here, because of our time limit, but why do you think even considering lowering the drinking age, which is what has caused the attention you're receiving, why would that lead to young people drinking less, do you believe, or might it lead to that?

Reducing the legal limit

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: One of the reasons that we feel that way is by looking at cross-cultural patterns. We are one of the very, very few nations in the world -- there are a handful -- one is Indonesia, one, I believe, is Papua New Guinea -- that have a drinking age as high as 21.

And researchers who have looked at those cross-cultural patterns see, for example, that in cultures which do not have so high a legal limit, a limit that is alone in its placement -- a majority -- every other thing in this society that an adult does can be done at 18.

When we look at other cultures where this 21-year-old drinking age is not the case, what we see is, indeed, probably more episodes of alcohol drinking, for example, a glass of wine with dinner, but far fewer episodes of risky and binge-drinking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Mr. Califano?

JOE CALIFANO: Judy, let me just do a couple of examples. England has the worst drinking problem in the industrialized nations. Other European nations have worse drinking problem with young people than we have with lower ages.

Number two, availability is the mother of use. The British, just a few months ago, thought the bars closing at 11 o'clock created a big vandalism problem because people got drunk. If they only had more access to alcohol, they'd be OK. They ended the ban -- the closing of the bars at 11:00 and the drinking problem got worse.

I mean, to say making something more available, I mean, let's make alcohol more available. Let's make marijuana more available. Let's make prescription drugs more available, which is an enormous problem on college campuses. And if that's going to reduce the use, all common logic makes that nonsense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Georgia Nugent, do you want to respond to that point?

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Well, actually, I respectfully disagree. I think one of the things that one might feel is that the concept of, if you will, forbidden fruit often actually enhances the attractiveness of a substance, or a practice, or what have you.

And many of us believe that that may be operating with respect to this anomaly of being a country that sets the age of majority at 18 for every adult responsibility, except drinking. So we feel there's a different way of looking at that.

I would say, let me highlight...

JOE CALIFANO: If I could just...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let Joe Califano come back on that point, if you would.

JOE CALIFANO: Just let me make one comment here, which I think is really important. In our study, which I urge people to look at, CASAColumbia.org, it's there, "Wasting the Best and the Brightest," we survey college students.

College students don't drink because it's forbidden fruit. They drink because they think it's a rite of passage. They think it's the culture, it's the world they live in. That's what you do.

And the numbers you cited at the beginning of this broadcast, we have a drinking problem with kids as young as 12. The age is not the problem; it's parents.

It's the culture on the college campuses. It's the alcohol industry, incidentally, which targets this group. And if the college presidents want to do something really powerful, they could take the NCAA and say, "No more advertising of beer on college basketball games, college football games, and what have you." Those games are saturated with beer advertising to appeal to college kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To bring this to...

JOE CALIFANO: But that would affect their pocketbooks.

Forming a national conversation

JUDY WOODRUFF: To bring this to a close, Georgia Nugent, are there other steps like the one Joe Califano just mentioned that you and the other college leaders are going to be looking at?

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Well, let me mention one thing that I think really...

JOE CALIFANO: Like the NCAA ban.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: ... arises -- I'm sorry, I'll come back to that in a moment.

JOE CALIFANO: Would you favor that? OK.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Yes, there are a number of us who actually have asked for that ban.

JOE CALIFANO: Terrific.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: And there are many, many institutions in the NCAA. And as we are urging, as college presidents, we're trying to work for change. One tries to work for change.

But one thing I would like to highlight just in our conversation today, one thing that we believe and that we are asserting in this letter is that there is a very broad range of research that is available out there. And there are many different views about the facts, for one thing, and then measures that are effective.

And what we're calling for is for a very broad range of that information to be made more available to the American public. We feel that there has probably been an emphasis on a very narrow range of research and study. And it's part of...

JOE CALIFANO: On the research point...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Joe Califano...

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: ... urge that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, Joe Califano, you're not saying...

JOE CALIFANO: Just on the research point, on the research point...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

JOE CALIFANO: ... our Commission on Wasting the Best and the Brightest, available on our Web site, as I mentioned, looked at a broad range of research, had college presidents like Monk Malloy of Notre Dame on it, and, believe me, changing the age is essentially irrelevant to this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But are...

JOE CALIFANO: It's like a grain of sand dropped on a beach or a drop of water dropped in an ocean.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying, in conclusion, Joe Califano, are you saying you're against the idea even of having a national conversation like these college presidents are calling for?

JOE CALIFANO: Oh, look, I think we can have national conversations about all kinds of things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

JOE CALIFANO: But I think if we want to deal with this problem, we should be focused on not what other people can do, what the other guy can do, but the college presidents and the parents. Everybody ought to look in the mirror and say, "What can I do? What can I do to deal with this incredible problem?"

JUDY WOODRUFF: Message heard from both of you, Joe Califano, Georgia Nugent, we thank you very much.

S. GEORGIA NUGENT: Thank you.

JOE CALIFANO: Thank you. Thank you.