Fence-sitting: Casteen holds off on drinking age initiative
Should the drinking age be lowered from 21 to 18?
That question is being asked around UVA Grounds– and around the country– thanks to the Amethyst Initiative, an effort by a group of college presidents to open an "informed and unimpeded debate" about lowering the minimum drinking age. On Saturday, UVA prez John Casteen told parents of incoming first-year students he still didn't know whether he'd ink his own name below the 128 college presidents already on the list, according to a transcript of his speech.
"It depends on whether they're able to develop and publish the evidence," he said, "to prove there's not a negative difference in the impact on young people."
Some people intimately acquainted with the drinking habits of UVA students are hoping Casteen will soon see that evidence.
"I would like to see Casteen sign," says John Crafaik, owner of Littlejohns, who believes the drinking age should be lowered.
"From my experience, they're going to acquire alcohol from somewhere," Crafaik says of the 18-20-year-old set. "Forcing them to do this behind the scenes does not provide proper respect for the law."
Like other critics of the 21-years-old drinking age, Crafaik points out that 18-year-olds can vote, marry, and fight in a war. "Having a beer with a pizza," he says, "seems to be something they should be allowed to do."
Over at Baja Bean Company, Ron Morse would also like to see Casteen's name added to the Amethyst list– and eventually he'd like to see the drinking age lowered.
"To me, an 18-year-old is drinking anyway on campus," says Morse. He cites European countries where teens can drink freely. "It's not that big a deal," he says. "It's learned through the home."
But another restaurant owner says he worries that lowering the drinking age could cause big trouble.
"In my opinion, it will increase alcohol consumption because it'll be legal, so anybody underage will not have to go out and work at having alcohol bought for them," says Jim Rowland, owner of St. Maarten's Cafe. "As an old guy whose been there and done that," he adds, "I think 21 is a good age."
Virginia's drinking age– along with most other states'– was raised in 1984 by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which tied federal highway funds to the older age limit. Supporters of the Act– Mothers Against Drunk Driving [MADD] and various government agencies, among others– say raising the drinking age has saved countless lives by preventing highway fatalities.
Critics, however, suggests other factors– tougher drinking and driving laws, increased seatbelt use, and ubiquitous air-bags– should share the credit for the drop in fatalities. Meanwhile, the Initiative states, the raised drinking age has created "a culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking'" on college campuses and has eroded respect for the law by encouraging students to use fake IDs.
By deferring a decision on whether to sign the Initiative, Casteen, who did not respond to the Hook's request for comment, seems to be deftly avoiding controversy. It's a safer position considering the heat other college presidents are taking from lobbying groups like MADD, which has lashed out at the Amethyst signatories for "shirking their responsibility to protect students" from the "dangers of alcohol" and issuing "deliberately misleading" information to push their agenda.
It would be hard to levy such a charge against Casteen, however– he served on the National Institutes of Health alcohol awareness task force for several years and for his efforts received the first President's Leadership Group Award from the U. S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention in 2003.
Indeed, according to several recent studies and surveys, binge drinking at UVA has dropped significantly thanks to a focus on "social norms marketing," in which ads and education are geared to teaching students that binge drinking isn't normal behavior.