Live-blogging Midmorning: Time to lower the drinking age?

We’re live blogging this morning’s Midmorning conversation on the suggestion by a group of college presidents to lower the drinking age.

We discussed this on News Cut earlier in the week and I”ll be relaying some of your comments. But we hope you’ll join us in this space during today’s show and react to what you hear.

I believe this is the first time Jack R. Ohle, the president of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, has spoken publicly on the issue. Other guests include: John McCardell: founder of Choose Responsibility and author of the Amethyst Initiative, which calls for a renewed debate on the legal drinking age. The initiative has been signed by the presidents of 114 colleges; Lynn Goughler: vice chair of public policy for MADD Minnesota; and Tracey Toomey: director of the alcohol epidemiology program at the University of Minnesota.

9:10 a.m. – The point that McCardell is addressing is the idea that a younger drinking age will lead people to learn how to drink responsibly. But here’s my question: How does one learn to drink responsibly? Julie in comments notes a daughter at school has learned. How?

9:11 a.m. – Kerri asks a good question: Is this an attempt to address the “discrimination” of being allowed to serve in a war, but not being allowed to drink legally. And if that’s the case — and this is originating from Vermont, after all — is this more anti-war, or anti binge-drinking in nature. Is this, for example, like the attempt by some in Congress to reintroduce the draft. They didn’t want the draft restored, they wanted to end a war.

9:13 a.m. – I just know someone is going to talk about how much smarter Europe is about youth drinking. Is it? The BBC reported last November, “The number of people in their late teens and early 20s being treated for alcohol-related illnesses is growing.” What’s a growing problem in Europe: Binge drinking.

However, Sweden has reportedly seen a decline in teen drinking since it joined the EU and alcohol became more available in neighboring countries:

For 2007 the statistics suggest that more than 30% of the students claim that they do not drink alcohol. This is up from 20% non-drinking 15 to 16-year-olds in the late 1990s.

9:18 A vet calls. Says his National Guard unit was deployed to Europe and says the big job was trying to prevent drunk driving among servicemembers.

Lynn Goughler of MADD says the debate shouldn’t be just lowering the drinking age to 18. When the drinking age was increased to 21, she says, it was the most studied public health question of the day.

McCardell says alcohol-related fatalities are going up, so raising the drinking to 21 didn’t work.

Here’s the data in Minnesota. This site says the number of alcohol related deaths in Minnesota in 2006 was half of what it was in 1982.

9:26 – Goughler says the debate has to be a recognition we have a drinking problem among teens, now what do we do about it. McCardell says what you don’t do is accuse college presidents of breaking the law and bully presidents from taking their names off the letter.

9:29 – Three of the comments just got mentioned on the air. Hoping to continue the discussion here after the show. Meanwhle, Goughler and McCardell are continuing to beat each other up.

9:33 – Jason just posted an interesting comment. The idea of “zero tolerance” for drunk driving.

In Romania, where I spend a lot of time, there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and it works. In Romania a person will lose his/her license if they are driving even after only one drink. Here, we allow people to drink until their BAC is up to .08, something most of us can’t even measure ourselves. Drinking alcohol is a part of the culture in Romania, yet there is very little drunk driving. Why do I rarely hear MADD address zero tolerance?

Nichole has a perspective on the “if you’re young enough to go to war…” argument:

Arguing that 18 year olds should be drinking because they can go to war is like arguing that fifteen-year-olds should be stripping because some of them are having sex.

9:40 a.m. – Jack Ohle of Gustavus joins us now, along with Tracie Toomey: director of the alcohol epidemiology program at the University of Minnesota. She was at the MPR UBS Forum discussion on binge drinking a few months ago.

Ohle says he doesn’t neceassarily agree with changing the law, but he does think it’s time to have the debate. But he doesn’t believe lowering the drinking age will have a positive impact on his campus in St. Peter.

Toomey says they’ve tried to get college presidents involved in this discussion for years.

9:46 a.m. – An 18 year old, Ross, calls to say if the only role alcohol has is in a “binge drinking role,” then it will be used to binge drink.

9:52 a.m. – Ohle says he’s “excited” that we’re having the debate and says he’s “surprised” that more college presidents haven’t signed the letter calling for the debate. Kerri points out that he’s also one of the few college presidents who would talk to us about the subject. Ohle says he’s seen high-risk drinking going up on college campuses, even as general consumption of alcohol goes down. He says the discussion should be held openly.

9:56 a.m. – I’m reminded that in Wisconsin, underage people can get served in a restaurant if they’re with their parents. Wisconsin is among the leaders in binge drinking. Is there a connection? Do Wisconsin parents provide a more responsible approach to drinking, and — if so — why doesn’t it show up in the statistics? BTW, here’s an article from the Journal Sentinel of Milwaukee a couple of years ago looking back on the effect of a higher drinking age.

Final comment come from Bill by e-mail:

I have been often troubled with the eighteen year olds going off to war. Brain studies show that they are not mature enough to make a live and death decision like that. I am also discouraged by the small voter turn out of young voters.

So, I suggest the subject for debate be raising the age for voting and military service to twenty-one. That should send a clear message that kids are not old enough to die in service or become stinking drunk.

Let’s keep chatting in the comments section!