When 100 university presidents announced their support for lowering the drinking age so that young people can learn to drink in a sensible, controlled environment, an audible gasp was heard around the world.

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, August 23, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

At long last sanity -- The Amethyst Initiative

As described in a previous PT blog, 100 university presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative, asking to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. Two initial signatories (both from Georgia, where American temperance traditions of abstinence-binge drinking run deep) immediately withdrew their support under pressure, but then 20 more presidents signed on.

The debate is not likely to be based on data - as the sound bites arising from each side in this superheated environment make clear.

What is important is that a respectable interest group has spoken up for the most ethically clear and psychologically sound principles. The United States is the only Western country that delays legal drinking until 21. As Americans, we are forced once again to ask, "What the hell is the matter with the rest of the world?" Everywhere else, people realize you can't prevent 18-21-year-olds from drinking, you can only encourage them to drink in more antisocial, guilty, and illegal ways - which is what we do.

The bizarre ritual of sanctioned binge drinking takes place on virtually every campus around the country (I remember asking a young man who attended a Christian Science college where he learned to drink - "At college, like everyone else," he answered). Instead of taking an opportunity where young people are in a protected environment which wraps around their entire lives to teach them to do something critical like drinking in a reasonable way, the best we can currently say is, "We know we can't tell you to drink sensibly - so go out and booze at bars and parties, but please don't kill yourself or anyone around you."

As I describe in Addiction-Proof Your Child, every campus should offer drinking environments where beer and wine are served to all students, along with food, in brightly lit settings with people (including faculty and grad students) of all ages present, and where civilized drinking is the rule of the day. How better to counteract the ubiquitous instruction in week-end bingeing now taught at fraternities and military bases?

Whenever suggestions like this are raised, a host of interest groups - stemming primarily from America's blue-nose tradition of ambivalence towards intoxicants - rush from the woodwork to say, "You're telling kids it's okay to consume addictive substances." Yes, and we need to give them some practice in using them responsibly, happily, and even healthily. But this usual group of opponents can't simply discount the Amethyst Group as industry stooges - they are our leading experts on what the hell kids are up to after they leave our homes before they enter the world. Who, exactly, if not they should teach our kids to drink?