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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education
ccarney@indiana.edu
812-856-8027

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008

Drinking age debate just one part of college alcohol problem, Gonzalez says

School of Education dean a noted researcher on college alcohol and drug abuse

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 21, 2008

The call to consider reducing the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 could spur some valuable discussion, but alone won't solve the college student alcohol problem, according to University Dean of the IU School of Education Gerardo Gonzalez, an internationally recognized expert on alcohol and drug education. More than 100 college and university chancellors and presidents have signed a public statement stating that the current legal drinking age of 21 hasn't worked.

Gerardo M. Gonzalez

Gerardo Gonzalez

Print-Quality Photo

"I think that what we're seeing in this letter is a level of frustration that college presidents feel about the problem of drinking on campus," Gonzalez said.

The higher education leaders are part of the Amethyst Initiative, an organization started last month (July 2008). On the organization's Web site, a welcome message reads that the current drinking age "has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking" on college campuses. While not specifically recommending lowering the drinking age, the organization "supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year-old drinking age."

Gonzalez founded the BACCHUS Network (BACCHUS stands for "Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students") at the University of Florida in 1975. It has grown to be the largest collegiate organization focused on preventing alcohol abuse, with more than 32,000 student leaders and advisers working with peers on more than 900 campuses worldwide. Gonzalez continues to serve on the BACCHUS board of trustees and consults with other organizations on issues surrounding campus alcohol abuse.

Gonzalez said he understands the desire for administrators to speak more candidly with students about alcohol abuse. Some campuses struggle with addressing students not of drinking age about the issues of alcohol.

"There's no evidence that reducing the drinking age would make it better," Gonzalez said. "It might make it easier for the colleges to be able to take a consistent approach to the population. But what we have on college campuses is a culture of drinking that leads to the very high level of binge drinking and related problems that we see. So no single approach or policy is going to impact that at the level that it needs to be impacted. It's going to require a comprehensive and sustained effort."

Gonzalez said that there is some research evidence suggesting such a change would have little impact on college students. He said that when a 1984 law required states to make the legal drinking age 21 or lose federal highway money, alcohol consumption and alcohol-related traffic crashes dropped for the 18 to 21 age group as a whole. But for college students, no relationship was found between minimum legal drinking age and either consumption levels or crashes.

The call for a change is also couched in an assumption, Gonzalez said, that drinking would be more open and thus more monitored. "Rather than trying to hide or do it behind closed doors, they might go to bars, go to places where there is more environmental control of the circumstances," he said. "Again, there is no research evidence to suggest that in fact that would happen."

The biggest impact of the presidents' initiative could be a frank discussion of the issues of college student alcohol abuse, Gonzalez said. "And to the extent that the presidents' initiative leads to a dialogue about what should the institutions do and what should be the presidents' role in promoting and advancing effective approaches, I think it is a healthy development. But the assumption that it could all hinge on a change in the drinking age law is not now supported by the research evidence."

Media Outlets: the following comments are available as mp3 files on the IU School of Education Web site at http://www.education.indiana.edu. Look for this news release under "News" on the home page. The sound bites below will have a clickable link to hear and to save the files.

Gonzalez said research indicates just a change in the drinking age won't have a great impact on college student alcohol abuse:

"But there's no evidence that reducing the drinking age would make it better. It might make it easier for the colleges to be able to make a consistent approach to the population. But what we have on college campuses is a culture of drinking that leads to the very high level of binge drinking, of problems that we see. So no single approach or policy is going to impact that at the level that it needs to be impacted. It's going to require a comprehensive and sustained effort."

When the drinking age changed in 1984, college student vehicle accidents and fatalities didn't change much, Gonzalez says, and some assumptions are driving this call for moving it to 18:

"The drinking age going up did not make a big impact on the college campus. There is no research evidence that suggests going down would have an impact. But the assumption these presidents are making is that if we didn't have our hands tied, that students could be informed about reasonable ways they can help minimize the risk. But the other thing is that it would reduce the need for students to drink in environments where there is actually greater risk. Rather than trying to hide or do it behind closed doors, they might go to bars, go to places where there is more environmental control of the circumstances. Now that's an assumption that the presidents are making. Again, there is no research evidence to suggest that in fact that would happen."

The most valuable result of the Amethyst Initiative, Gonzalez says, is talk:

"I think that the issue is dealing effectively with the culture of drinking on the college campuses. There isn't a college campus in this country, large or small, that doesn't have a drinking problem. And to the extent that the presidents' initiative leads to a dialogue about what should the institutions do and what should be the presidents' role in promoting and advancing effective approaches, I think it is a healthy development. But the assumption that it could all hinge on a change in the drinking age law is not now supported by the research evidence."

Gonzalez says his past work in dealing with college student alcohol abuse indicates there's no single solution:

"What's needed is an institutional commitment and a social commitment to dealing with what is clearly the greatest threat that young people and college students in particular face today. So my work was geared towards getting the colleges to recognize the problem and to commit to programs and efforts that the research would suggest will give them the best chance of reducing the problem."