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Lower the national drinking age?

What are college chiefs thinking?

The recent announcement by some 100 college presidents floating the proposal to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 is nothing short of irresponsibility and foolishness.

It's also a selfish copout that would have horrific implications in our state and throughout the country.

As an Oregon non-profit dedicated to the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse, we agree with Mark Rosenker, the acting chief of the National Transportation Safety Board, who called the idea 'a national tragedy to turn back the clock and jeopardize the lives of more teens.'

In the early 70s, a number of states lowered the drinking age and nighttime fatal crashes increased 17 percent among those ages 18 to 20.

But in 1984, President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which said if states didn't adopt a drinking age of 21, they would see 10 percent of their federal highway funding cut. So now, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have set a drinking age of 21.

There is no doubt that the law has been effective in saving lives. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has shown that raising the drinking age to 21 from 18 has resulted in 900 fewer traffic fatalities annually involving teens.

And according to recent polls, the American public overwhelmingly agrees that the current drinking age is just fine.

So instead of saying that the problem of binge drinking on campuses would simply go away by legalizing it - which is ludicrous - college administrators need to step up and tackle the problem head on.

It's time for real leadership in formulating campus alcohol policies, instead of dreaming up ways to limit potential liability. They should engage students in developing a set of principles designed to create a campus environment that de-emphasizes the role of heavy drinking in student life.

And any such policy should include strengthening efforts to educate parents of incoming freshman, to provide confidential counseling and intervention services for students and to bolster campus and community enforcement.

Colleges also must inform and educate students and their parents, who still hold a lot of influence on their kids, not to mention helping with tuition, about the wide range of consequences of binge drinking. A very strong correlation exists between student drinking and physical and sexual assault, depression, anxiety, and failure at school. And as alarming is alcohol poisoning from binge drinking that can result in death.

College administrators need to communicate loud and clear the overriding message to students, parents, trustees and alumni: alcohol is off limits if you're not 21.

This would be a radical shift in the college culture, no doubt. But cultures change, and this one can too.

Make no mistake - partying students drink to get drunk. With this latest move by some college presidents, one wonders what in the world the presidents have been drinking.

Judy Cushing is the president and CEO for the Oregon Partnership.