Preventing Binge Drinking

Why the Amethyst Initiative Could Be the Solution

MIT has a lot of alcohol emergencies — or maybe not, if you compare it to some other schools. But the reason these details make me cringe is because I can guarantee that every one of these emergencies was pretty awful for those involved.

It is definitely not fun to have thrown up so much that you’re choking, or to be falling over so often that you have to be carried away. And it is definitely not fun to have to be the friend who calls, and then tries to hide that it was you when your friend storms out of the hospital the next morning. Trust me, I’ve been there.

So, for the sake of us students, I will completely throw my support behind anything that reduces binge drinking, anything that reduces that number of hospital visits by students that are due to alcohol. Who has time for a hospital visit when your 8.03 pset is due the next day?!

So is the Amethyst Initiative, which is a movement by U.S. college presidents, deans, and chancellors to lower the drinking age, really the answer? Will lowering the drinking age to, say, 18 actually reduce binge drinking?

Let’s approach this logically. There are three options for the age distribution of college binge drinking. The first is that most binge drinkers are 21 and up, because they have much easier access to large amounts of alcohol. I’m going to say this is unlikely, because the CDC reports that the proportion of drinkers that binge drink is currently the highest, at 51 percent, in the 18-20 year old age group.

So the second option is that binge drinking is about the same across all college age groups, and being of legal age does not dramatically affect binge drinking patterns. If this were true, then logically, the Amethyst Initiative would not have much of an effect in either direction. The behavior of college binge drinkers would not change if they suddenly became legal at a younger age.

The final option is that underage drinkers are much more likely to binge drink than to drink responsibly. This could be the case, because underage drinkers probably have had less exposure to alcohol than 21 year-olds who have been in college for a few years. Also, underage drinkers are probably less likely to know how many drinks they can or should have if they don’t want to end up in an ambulance.

So if this final option is true, the Amethyst Initiative is what we’re looking for. By lowering the drinking age, students would get more exposure to alcohol in high school, similar to Europeans and Canadians. In addition, this high school exposure is more likely to be supervised under the watchful eyes of parents, and so kids are more likely to learn — before they end up in the hospital — how much they can take.

I’ve spoken to a few students who said their parents made them drink before college, just so their first experience with alcohol would be with them. I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all.

It is most likely that underage drinkers are responsible for most of the binge drinking, given the CDC’s statistics, and given how binge drinking in college, where about half of the undergraduate students are underage, is always emphasized. So if we lower the drinking age, which will increase students’ exposure to alcohol before they leave for college, it’s quite likely that MIT students will have to visit the hospital less often due to alcohol.

It is also likely that the nation will see fewer hospital visits overall due to teenage binge drinking, because when teens binge drink, parents find out. Teens can’t hide much information from their guardians until they’re 18. And if you get caught slopping all over yourself once by your parents, you will probably think twice before doing it again.

If the Amethyst Initiative successfully lowers the drinking age, it’s possible that alcohol won’t be as essential a part of the college experience. It just won’t be quite as exciting anymore, because it won’t be illegal. So I guess we’ll just have to find something else illegal to do …

Now there’s a scary thought.

Jennifer Nelson ’09 is a student in the Department of Biology.