A red Solo cup filled with a mixture of Banker’s Club vodka and Kool-Aid mix, the blaring sounds of “Wagon Wheel” and the sight of a dimly light basement are all part of a typical off-campus party on Lehigh’s campus. Often, the idea of college is accompanied by the association of drinking. For many people, however, the majority of their college experience in the United States is spent under the legal drinking age 21.This law is commonly broken.
The law used to state that it was legal for persons aged 18 to consume alcohol, but the age was raised in 1982 when President Ronald Reagan established the Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving, according to Choose Responsibly. A group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving, formed in 1980 in response to the death of Candy Lightner’s daughter, assisted in gaining support for the law.
A few years after the legislation passed, a survey of students at 56 colleges across the country was conducted. The survey found that there were significantly more underage students drinking than legal age students, concluding, “the increase in purchase age appears to have been not only ineffective but actually counter-productive, at least in the short run.”
The idea of abstaining from alcohol until aged 21 seems somewhat unreasonable to us. If we’re allowed to vote, serve in the military or purchase cigarettes — which in some cases could be more dangerous than consuming alcohol — then why is it illegal to consume alcohol? Additionally, it’s legal for a person who is 18 years old to serve alcohol – if we can bartend and mix alcoholic beverages, then why can’t we drink them?
There are exceptions to the law, which creates a sense of confusion over what is allowed. According to a nonprofit educational website, underage drinking is permitted in 29 states if it is with parental consent on a private premises. Drinking underage is also legal in 25 states for religious purposes and 11 states for educational purposes. Puerto Rico, a United States territory, has the drinking age set at 18 years old.
Drinking is common on Lehigh’s campus, as it is on many college campuses, and we recognize the difficulty for some international students under the age of 21 to begin abstaining from drinking if they are legal to do so in their home countries. A recent study by the World Health Organization compared Americans with people 15 and 16 years old. In many European states, where the drinking age is 18 or younger, it was found European teens drink on more occasions per month, but have fewer dangerous intoxication occasions than Americans. For example, ratios of all drinking occasions to intoxication occasions were about one in 10 in southern European countries, but the ratio in the United States showed that almost half of all drinking occasions resulted in intoxication.
Although the law states that it is illegal to drink under the age of 21, we know it is unrealistic to assume that all people will abstain from alcohol until they reach legal age, just as not everyone will always obey every other law. With Lehigh’s perceived drinking culture in mind, many students believe drinking alcohol is the norm, regardless of what the law states (or what actually happens). A common chant heard at Lehigh football games goes:
“Get out that old silver goblet with Lehigh upon it, and we’ll open up another keg of beer – more beer! For we all came to college, but we didn’t come for knowledge, so we’ll raise hell while we’re here.”
We believe part of the hype surrounding drinking comes from the fact that it is illegal until we are 21 years old. If the legal age were lowered to 18, we believe students entering Lehigh and other colleges around the nation would associate drinking with the “college experience,” but it wouldn’t be as severe. Part of the problem results from binge drinking. Underage students tend to drink aggressively and quickly before going out for the night because they will be unable to purchase alcohol at bars or restaurants.
College may be the first time that some students drink, and consuming alcohol can be a learning experience — regardless of age. Even legal, seasoned drinkers drink too much, resulting in a citation or hospitalizations. Because Lehigh has an accredited police force on campus, this means students who are caught drinking underage also face trouble with the state of Pennsylvania.
College is a learning experience, and making mistakes is part of that process. The LUPD serves, in some ways, as educators to students. Their officers are generally more lenient because they understand that students make mistakes, unlike the Bethlehem Police Department, whose responsibility is solely to enforce.
We doubt any student wants an underage drinking citation on their record, but Lehigh’s intentions are in the right place. Underage drinking is illegal, regardless of its fairness or sense.
Although we don’t expect all minors to refrain from drinking alcohol until they turn 21, we should also be mindful of the consequences. It is the law, as arbitrary and confusing as it may be, and we are expected to follow it.