College presidents from about 100 of the best-known U.S. universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.
The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the U.S. drinking age, which is among the highest in the world.
"This is a law that is routinely evaded," said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the organization. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."
Other prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.
But even before the presidents begin the public phase of their efforts, which may include publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks, they are already facing sharp criticism.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.
"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.
Injuries, deaths from alcohol abuse
Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem.
Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.
A recent Associated Press analysis of federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.
Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.
"There isn't that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18," she said. "If the age is younger, you're getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don't freak out when you get to campus."
McCardell's group takes its name from ancient Greece, where the purple gemstone amethyst was widely believed to ward off drunkenness if used in drinking vessels and jewelry. He said college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it's illegal.
The statement the presidents have signed avoids calling explicitly for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucks the trend.
But the statement makes clear the signers think the current law isn't working, citing a "culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking," and noting that while adults under 21 can vote and enlist in the military, they "are told they are not mature enough to have a beer." Furthermore, "by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."
Shifting burden to high schools
But some college administrators sharply disagree that lowering the drinking age would help. University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, declined to sign.
"I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," Shalala said in a telephone interview. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."
Another scholar who has extensively researched college binge-drinking also criticized the presidents' initiative.
"I understand why colleges are doing it, because it splits their students, and they like to treat them all alike rather than having to card some of them. It's a nuisance to them," said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health.
But, he added, "I wish these college presidents sat around and tried to work out ways to deal with the problem on their campus rather than try to eliminate the problem by defining it out of existence."