NJ lawmakers call for college drinking study

November 17, 2008 5:50:30 PM PST
Excessive drinking on college campuses can only be curtailed if underage drinkers are taught about the responsible use of alcohol, New Jersey lawmakers were told on Monday. Following a hearing before the Senate Education Committee, Senate President Richard Codey and committee Chairwoman Shirley Turner said they would draft legislation to study the best practices employed on college campuses to curb drinking by 18- to 20-year-olds.

"After we examined all of the alcohol policies submitted to us by state colleges and universities, it was clear that there is no uniform policy to effectively address this serious issue," said Codey.

People who testified during the hearing disagreed over whether the 1983 law raising the drinking age from 19 to 21 is working, but did agree that education is the best tool for combatting widespread alcohol abuse in colleges and high schools.

Monday's hearing was called, in part, to address the Amethyst Initiative, a movement to rethink the legal drinking age of 21. College presidents and chancellors say there is a culture of dangerous drinking on campuses despite the minimum drinking age.

Two recent deaths of New Jersey college students have underscored the urgency of the problem. Rider University freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr. died of alcohol poisoning last year after drinking at a fraternity house, and University of Delaware student Brett Griffin, 18, of Kendall Park, N.J., died last week of a suspected alcohol overdose.

Former Middlebury College President John McCardell, founder of the Amethyst Initiative, said the drinking age act is unenforceable and puts unfair pressure on college presidents to do what society at large has been able to do: stop alcohol consumption among underage drinkers.

He cited statistics meant to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of current laws: 95 percent of people who become alcohol consumers take their first drink before age 21; 50 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds consume alcohol regularly; and 75 percent of high school seniors, 60 percent of sophomores and 40 percent of eighth-graders have consumed alcohol.

"What might you conclude? Certainly not that current laws are working very effectively. How can anyone give college presidents the task of enforcing the law when it's so abundantly clear that the law has proven so unenforceable before these young people even reach our campuses," McCardell said.

Pam Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety and co-founder of the NJ 21 Coalition, urged lawmakers to maintain the current age requirement, saying it has significantly reduced highway fatalities among the young.

She said there has been "a huge drop" - 78 percent - in fatalities among people 18 to 20 over the past 25 years.

"We're fighting for our children's lives here," she said.