August 29, 2008

Pres. Skorton Refuses to Sign Pledge to Lower Drinking Age

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The Amethyst Initiative was created by a group of college presidents in June with the goal of inciting discussion about the effectiveness of the current drinking age. As of Wednesday, 129 presidents of colleges and universities around the country had signed an initiative supporting an investigation to lower the drinking age back to 18. President David Skorton was not one of the signatories.
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which penalized states’ federal highway appropriations by 10 percent if they set the drinking age lower than 21. Among other things, the initiative suggests that the higher drinking age has spurred a binge-drinking culture and encouraged students to make ethical compromises by using fake IDs. [img_assist|nid=31280|title=Not for all|desc=The majority of Cornell students cannot drink in bars such as Rulloff’s since they are not yet 21.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“I share the urgency and commitment to make progress with what is one of the major areas of concern for all of us in student life and safety — dangerous binge drinking,” said Skorton in a statement. “I believe the Amethyst Initiative’s statement raises serious policy issues on this important topic, issues that should be debated and evaluated. However, based on my experience and my reading of the research literature, I opted not to sign this statement.”
There have been several studies published on the issue, such as one conducted by James C. Fell, of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation which found that since laws have been passed to make the legal drinking age 21, there has been an 11 percent drop in alcohol related traffic deaths among young people.
“I share the president’s reluctance to sign on to the Amethyst Initiative. It seems to me that one thing you can’t escape is that changing the drinking age from 18 to 21 has saved lives,” said Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students. “I’m all for the conversation and the discussion about how we can create an environment where alcohol is used sensibly but I think that starting with a reduction in the drinking age is perhaps the wrong place to begin.”
According to Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett Health Services, Cornell has several programs in place to deal with and control the use of alcohol by students. On an individual level, there are various counseling options available to students. On an environmental level, the school has more strictly managed events such as Homecoming, Slope Day and Senior Week. The President’s Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs was founded in 2001 and has spearheaded many of the efforts.
Hubbell said that when he was a student at Cornell, the drinking age was still 18 and alcohol abuse occurred at least as frequently if not more so than it does currently.
“I’m not certain that changing the drinking age in any direction is going to lessen the problems at all,” said Kathy Zoner, deputy chief of the Cornell University Police Department. “The drinking age is just one aspect of the many problems of alcohol.”
Evidence of this problem is that according to Gannet, in anonymous self-reporting surveys conducted at Cornell over the past years, 10 percent of students consistently said that they are concerned they might have a problem with alcohol or other drugs.
According to Marchell, lowering the drinking age to 18 would also pose problems because many high school seniors would legally be able to buy alcohol, and then be able to pass it on to even younger students.
One part of the initiative states that it wants legislators to consider whether the 10 percent penalty on states’ federal highway appropriation encourages or inhibits the debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.
“I don’t know if there’s enough support to make [lowering the drinking age] happen,” said Tobey Zimber, legislator’s assistant in the New York State Assembly. “Anybody who wants to move any piece of legislation would have to contact the member or senator who is their representative. Hopefully you are loud enough, vocal enough and convincing enough that the legislator will side with you and get the legislation moved forward.”
Jeremy Coen, a bartender at a local bar in Ithaca, pointed out that lowering the drinking age could help because currently underage students are just having their friends buy alcohol for them at the grocery store. This makes drinking worse because the students take the alcohol home, yet if they were able to legally drink at a bar, their drinking would be more monitored.
“Age 18 is not a simple solution to the problem. People from age 18 through 21 oftentimes learn behaviors that will carry them through a lifetime,” said Hubbell. “If they’ve learned to drink alcohol in excess it may continue with dire circumstances. On the other hand, if we can find a way to promote behavior that leads to moderation, we will have ensured that our students have the opportunity to pursue productive lives.”