Thoughts about the Amethyst Initiative

10-09-2008

There has been a great deal of discussion in the media over the past month about an initiative calling for open public debate about lowering the legal drinking age. This initiative, called the Amethyst Initiative, has gained the support of some college and university presidents and chancellors across the country, many of whom have declared that the 21-year-old drinking age is not working. While the number of college and university leaders supporting the initiative is a small percentage of U.S. higher education leadership, their declarations about the drinking age have drawn considerable attention.

I’m disappointed that absolute statements targeting the drinking age as the problem have become the focus of this call for discussion. Such statements run counter to the underlying spirit of the Amethyst Initiative, which is to spark serious discussion about the serious matters of alcohol use and abuse among young people.

I did not sign the Amethyst Initiative. Yet, I agree that an informed national dialogue about this important public policy issue is necessary. This dialogue certainly would include college presidents, but it would also include the broad—and broadly informed—perspectives of a wide range of state and national legislators because it is the men and women in these positions who will decide whether to change or to uphold current statutes.

Michigan State University is committed to providing the best possible environment in which students can learn and grow. This includes helping young people on our campus prepare for the responsibility that comes with the legal right to consume alcohol. We are dedicated to using the best methods and resources available to equip our students with the knowledge and confidence to make responsible decisions. In fact, MSU was recognized last year by the U.S. Department of Education as a model program for these efforts.

We also tackle the challenge of underage drinking that takes place here and on virtually every college campus in America. We are well aware of the harm that can come from irresponsible drinking behaviors, and we persistently work to educate all students, regardless of their age, about these issues. At MSU, we use an evidence-based approach to alcohol education and efforts to reduce risk and prevent harm associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

As a land-grant university, our commitments and our connections extend well beyond the borders of our campus. Our values and our role demand that our activities, opinions, and advocacy efforts are informed by the best science and the best thinking of the day. To that end, I have asked individuals from the MSU Institute for Public Policy and Social Research to produce a white paper looking at the question of legal drinking age, taking into consideration both the latest research on alcohol use and abuse and the complexity of associated policy issues.

There is ample reason to open this discussion, and I endorse investigation of the question of drinking age so long as there is rigorous pursuit of evidence from all appropriate arenas. Proponents of lowering the age from 21 cite evidence related to the frequency and level of drinking of those under 21. Proponents of maintaining the age of 21 cite evidence related to health and safety—not only of those under age 21 that drink but of those affected by their behavior. All of these arguments and the many others that have been put forth deserve careful consideration and discussion.

In the spirit of open and public debate, we can all help inform policy-making decisions. I encourage those interested in this issue to become informed and active participants in this debate and to remain open to various perspectives and evidence as the debate progresses.

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