Rupert Cornwell: Pour the kid a drink and stop alcohol abuse

Out of America: Sneaking off to the bar is all part of college life, even if it is illegal for most. But plans to relax the law have had a shaky start
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The Independent Online

Today my 18-year-old son crosses a Rubicon of American life. After his sheltered years at high school, he's off to college (as they call university here) for the first time. There he will enter a quasi-adult world in which new freedoms abound. Among these freedoms is the possibility of getting himself blind drunk. That it is illegal reduces the possibility not one whit. More likely, it increases it.

In its legal drinking age, as so much else, the US is out of step with most of the rest of the world, not just Europe where in some countries the minimum age is 16, but also Asia and the rest of the Americas, where it is mostly 18. Here, you can be sent to fight in Iraq, you can vote, and you can commit a crime that gets you executed, all when you're 18. But until you're 21 you're not allowed to buy a drink.

Now, however – and, astonishingly, for the first time I can remember in the more than dozen years I've lived in the US – there are serious demands that the drinking age be reduced. They don't come from Congress, where politicians would be less at risk proposing US citizenship for Osama bin Laden than urging eased restrictions on the demon booze, nor from the general public. They have been made by the people on the front lines of the battle to contain underage drinking: the presidents of more than 100 eminent US universities.

Last week these gentlemen launched the Amethyst Initiative, its name denoting not the precious stone but the ancient Greek word for "not drunk". They urge that real thought be given to lowering the drinking age to 18. Keeping it as high as it is, they argue, has only made the problem worse, creating "a culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking, often conducted off-campus". The group "is not in favour of intoxication", says John McCardell, ex-president of Middlebury College in Vermont, who conceived the Amethyst idea. "We are for responsible adult behaviour when it comes to alcohol."

Thus far, as I noted, the public response to the proposal has been: perish the thought. Not just Congress, but other college presidents are opposed to Amethyst. So, most vociferously, is Madd, the influential Mothers Against Drunk Driving organisation, which maintains the only problem with the current law is that it's not properly enforced.

A few states, among them Minnesota, Wisconsin and South Carolina, have either tried and failed to change the law, or concluded it had no chance of passage – even when a lower drinking age was limited to the military, on the reasonable enough grounds that if you're old enough to get shot at on behalf of your country, you're old enough to buy a beer. That principle applied the last time the drinking age was as low as 18 in some states, during the Vietnam war when high school leavers could find themselves in the jungles of the Mekong Delta.

Strictly speaking, the current law does not bar people from drinking before they are 21. In most states that is the case, but in a few such as New York, parents can pour a glass of wine for their children in a restaurant. What is illegal, under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed by Congress in 1984, is for under-21s to buy or possess alcohol in public. Individual states can even ignore that if they choose – but at the price of losing 10 per cent of their federal highway funding.

But just before we grown-up, worldly Europeans start to mock those puritanical Yanks, it's worth making a few points. First, the drink-driving part of the equation is far more serious than in Europe, where public transport is widely available. The younger the driver, the worse the risk of drink-related accidents. Like most of his friends, my 18-year-old-son has his own car and drives it a great deal. Madd claims the 1984 law has saved 25,000 lives.

More fundamentally, Amethyst may be founded on a false premise. The hope is that if the legal drinking age is lowered, the US will be transformed into a transatlantic version of Greece, France, or Italy, where from 16 or even younger, alcohol is an unremarkable part of everyday life, and thus less likely to be abused.

Alas, I suspect a more probable model is the mother country. In Britain, more relaxed drinking laws seem to have encouraged more consumption. Binge drinking and public drunkenness have increased, especially among women. The same, I suspect, might happen here.

So, almost certainly, the present institutionalised hypocrisy will continue. In 1993, my elder son spent three months in Washington DC as an intern for a senator. He was rising 19, entitled to buy a beer in London, but not in the capital of the free world. No problem, however. He soon heard on the grapevine which bars weren't too fussy about IDs, and normal service soon resumed.

The argument for lowering the drinking age is much the same as that for legalising drugs: once the "forbidden fruit" thrill is removed, consumption will fall. In the meantime, however, on college campuses illusion and reality will continue to compete.

Dan Mote, a signatory of the Amethyst Initiative, is president of the University of Maryland's biggest campus in the DC suburbs. Next week freshmen of the class of 2012 report for the first time. They will be informed, he told The Washington Post last week, that college police will apply existing drinking laws "with terrific ferocity". In the next breath, however, Mote says he will urge them to "take care of each other and use our alcohol treatment services to the maximum". My son has been warned.