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Social Norms Featured

David Craig, a professor of chemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, was recently included in an article in the Daily Messenger about the initiative of more than 100 college presidents to lower the legal drinking age. Craig is Project Director with Professor Wesley Perkins of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Alcohol Education Project, a collection of education and research initiatives, and directs a research group monitoring late night blood alcohol concentrations in a college population. His work has informed students and faculty about social norms and abuse problems related to alcohol and other drugs.

In the article, Craig is presented as the counter to the idea of a “drinking learner’s permit,” noting that he and Perkins “favor education programs aimed at reversing student’s perceptions about alcohol abuse.”

“After years of research, Craig and Perkins have found that most college students do not abuse alcohol, but they believe many more drink than actually do,” the article states, explaining that perception that binge drinking is widespread is one of the “strongest risk factors that determine whether students will drink or not, Craig said.”

It goes on to quote him, “If they think their peers are using, they’re more likely to use. The cool thing is that, unlike other risk factors like family, these erroneous perceptions can be controlled by education.”

The article says Craig “thinks the best approach to underage drinking is to be honest. What we should do is celebrate the good, healthy choices of the majority of young people,” he said.

Craig received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at Riverside in 1977 and his B.A. from California State University at Chico. In 1979, Craig became a professor of chemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The full article appears below.


Daily Messenger
“Take a ‘legal’ swig at 20?”

Mike Maslanik • staff writer • October 11, 2008

Hopewell, N.Y. –
Finger Lakes Community College student Kara Collings is 18 and says she doesn’t drink alcohol – but she knows plenty of her classmates do.

“I know a lot of people who drink in their suites or go down to the lake and drive home drunk because they want to hide it from their parents,” she said.

It’s anecdotes like that that are being used by a group of over 100 college presidents who are calling for a reduction in the legal drinking age of 21. In July, a consortium of them launched the Amethyst Initiative, contending that the mandatory age has driven underage drinking underground and pushed students to overindulge.

Collings supports the effort. “I agree, they should lower the drinking age,” she said at FLCC’s Hopewell campus. “I don’t drink, but maybe it will stop kids from sneaking away to get drunk.”

Signatories to the Amethyst Initiative say alcohol education that calls for abstinence hasn’t lead to behavioral changes among college students. What’s more – they don’t think the current age limit is fair: “Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer,” the group’s Web site says.

Signatories include the presidents of Ohio State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the nearest to Canandaigua, Elmira College in Chemung County. The presidents of Finger Lakes Community College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva have not signed on.

The Amethyst Initiative seeks to start a dialogue on alternatives to much of the current alcohol education programs, which encourage total abstinence until 21.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was signed into law in 1984, but a mandatory drinking age wasn’t a new concept.

When the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, New York and Louisiana were the only two states that did not set a minimum drinking age at 21. The drinking age was 18 in both states at that time.

Drinking ages across the country fell with the passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, in 1971.

By 1976, an increasing amount of fatal car crashes involving intoxicated 18 to 21-year-olds caused lawmakers to take another look at drinking ages, and in many states it was pushed back to 21. In 1982, New York state increased its drinking age to 19.

Part of the resistance to a reduction to the drinking age in New York is the fact that the federal government has the power to withhold 10 percent of a state’s highway appropriations if its drinking age is any lower than 21.

Proponents of the 21 year drinking age point to volumes of surveys and data that point to the dramatic reductions of alcohol-related deaths of young people.
“After looking at all the legitimate research, virtually everyone agrees with the effectiveness of the law,” said Rob Lillis, a research consultant with Evalumetrics Research in Canandaigua. He often works with the Partnership for Ontario County.
Some of the most powerful ammunition against a drinking age reduction comes from highway fatality statistics.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows a 69 percent drop in fatal vehicle crashes involving 15- to 20-year-old, drinking drivers between 1982 and 2006, from 4,393 to 1,377. The agency also found that 43 percent of young drivers killed in crashes tested positive for blood-alcohol content in 1982, while 25 percent did in 2006.

Studies have also shown that youth drinking itself has gone down since the age limit was raised to 21.

The Monitoring America’s Future survey of high school seniors found a marked decline in young people who have used alcohol within 30 days. According to its findings, about 70 percent of seniors drank in the last month in 1982 versus about 45 percent in 2007.

Much of the decrease has to do with tight enforcement of laws that limit the availability of alcohol, Lillis said.

Still, alcohol abuse remains a problem among college students.

In 2001, more than 1,700 students ages 18 to 21 were killed in alcohol-related accidents, more than 500,000 were injured and more than 600,000 were assaulted by a student who had been drinking, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Lillis acknowledged that college students tend to drink more than any other segment of their age group, and when they do drink, they tend to drink more. The prevalence of binge drinking is a hot topic nowadays, he said, but there is not enough data available to draw reliable conclusions.

Still, deaths due to alcohol poisoning amount to about 2,000 fatalities per year across the nation, Lillis said, and that is not that many, statistically speaking.
David Hanson, professor of sociology at SUNY Potsdam, agrees with the Amethyst Initiative and supports the concept of a “drinking learner’s permit.”

“This is exactly what we do with driving, but can you imagine if we handled driving like we do drinking,” Hanson, who has studied alcohol use among young people since 1967. “We would tell young people that it’s dangerous, that it requires physical and mental maturity and we’re not going to let you do it at all until you turn 21.”

By introducing alcohol at an earlier age and allowing greater freedoms as teens get older, he said young people can learn to be more responsible. It would also curb clandestine binge-drinking, Hanson believes.

Hanson disputes many of the arguments made by those making a case for alcohol abstinence until age 21. Early use of alcohol is not an indicator of abuse later in life, he said. Instead, people who are natural risk-takers are more likely to become alcoholics no matter when they take their first drink.

“Certain personality types predispose people to drink at an earlier age,” Hanson said.

He also believes that the effect of alcohol on developing brains is exaggerated.
“Many groups and cultures allow children to drink a glass of wine or beer at a young age,” Hanson said. “Do people really want to say that Jews, Greeks, Italians, et cetera suffer from some sort of mental defect?”

Lillis said comparisons between the United States and other countries are not useful, mostly due to cultural differences. They discount the nearly 1 billion observant Muslims who abstain from alcohol, he said, and do not take into account the high rates of alcohol-related illnesses, like cirrhosis of the liver, prevalent in European countries.

David Craig, a professor of chemistry at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, sharply disagrees with Hanson’s approach. Instead, he and HWS sociology professor H. Wesley Perkins favor education programs aimed at reversing student’s perceptions about alcohol abuse.

After years of research, Craig and Perkins have found that most college students do not abuse alcohol, but they believe many more drink than actually do.
That perception that “everybody does it” is, in fact, one of the strongest risk factors that determine whether students will drink or not, Craig said.
“If they think their peers are using, they’re more likely to use,” Craig said. “The cool thing is that, unlike other risk factors like family, these erroneous perceptions can be controlled by education.”

He and Perkins developed an educational program that aims to alter the “social norms” of a given school by exposing the true amount of students who actually drink. The approach, he said, only works at the local level.

Their program, put to use in New Jersey and Colorado, involves interviewing almost every student in a high school or college to determine how many of them actually drink and sharing the data with the entire student body.

When the students see how few of their peers actually drink or use drugs or engage in bullying behavior, students are less likely to be involved in risky behaviors, Craig said.

The approach has been successful, he said. After an 18-month trial program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges about 10 years ago, student perceptions of heavy drinking on campus dropped 15 percent and 21 percent of those surveyed said they were less likely to drink heavily.

Craig said the consequences of heavy drinking also seemed to decrease after that period: property damage reports dropped 36 percent, fewer students missed class, and reports of unprotected sex dropped 40 percent.

Rather than change the laws, Craig thinks the best approach to underage drinking is to be honest.

“What we should do is celebrate the good, healthy choices of the majority of young people,” he said.

Contact Mike Maslanik at (585) 394-0770 ext. 343 or at mmaslanik@messengerpostmedia.com.