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Thinking About Drinking

Stan Simpson

August 20, 2008

The action by the presidents of some of the country's finest universities was a headline writer's dream.

Can't believe no one thought up "School Prezes Say: More Teen Drinking."

If it's engagement and debate the approximately 100 presidents want about whether the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18, then they should pop a cork and have a toast.

As expected, the folks at MADD are, well, mad. Lawmakers can be expected to pontificate. Young people, however, are more divided and thoughtful than maybe some would suspect.

"Honestly, I think it's a bad idea," said Andrew Schwartz, 21, a senior music major at the University of Hartford who was practicing the tuba on campus Monday. "It's not going to change anything except the amount of arrests for underage drinking. When I was a freshman I had no problem finding alcohol. ... I drank a lot as a freshman, and I'm sure if I could have just gone to the store, I would have drank a lot more."

The university presidents, concerned about binge drinking, say lowering the age limit to 18 may reduce the excessive consumption of alcohol on campus. It's sort of like Great Britain's recent decision to allow some of its pubs to stay open beyond the 11 p.m. closing time to curtail the crush of "last callers" seeking one more for the road. Government officials there, however, released a report in March saying the extended hours did not reduce alcohol-related public disorders.

The question of who is mature enough to drink alcohol really comes down to defining a consistent age for adulthood. In America, we've pretty much anointed 18 as that number. As St. Joseph College President Pamela Reid Trotman says 18-year-olds "can serve in the military. They can vote. Some of them are gainfully employed."

So, yeah, let 'em drink. But let's make sure the consequences for driving while intoxicated are severe, as University of Hartford President Walter Harrison notes.

He is unequivocal in his support for an age 18 limit. "It will take the hypocrisy [out] of trying to tell students that they can't drink and knowing that a large number of them do," Harrison said. "If we can get past the hypocrisy and work on what is the real message, which is you must choose responsibly, I think we'd be better off."

Harrison said he encourages police to set up blockades to catch drunken drivers outside of his campus.

I hung out for a bit Tuesday at the University of Hartford, talking to some students who were getting things in order for the September semester.

Eliana Cardeno, 21, a native of Medellin, Colombia, where the drinking age is 18 was working at the UHart bookstore. "I think people are old enough when they're 18 to make their own decisions," she said. "I used to drink a lot more when I was a freshman. Then slowly you just get tired of the drinking and the going out and the frat parties and stuff like that."

Naima Millette, 25, is a grad student who does not drink. The Trinidad native said that all campuses should be dry and that freshmen, in particular, should be prohibited from drinking because many are not mature enough.

"They're basically trying to find their footing and find out who they are," she said.

This issue is really a no-win proposition. The presidents can wink at the 21 age limit and know it's a sham, or they can suggest lowering the age limit.

And risk attacks that they are acting irresponsibly about responsible drinking.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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