President Casteen Discusses the Amethyst Initiative to Lower Legal Drinking Age

During a speech Aug. 23 to parents of incoming first-year students, University of Virginia President John T. Casteen discussed the Amethyst Initiative. This consortium of college chancellors and deans maintains that the nationwide legal drinking age of 21 is ineffective and advocates renewing the debate about lowering the legal drinking age to 18. As of Aug. 22, some 129 college officials had signed on.

President Casteen has been a leader nationally on the topic of alcohol use by young people. Here are his remarks on the Amethyst Initiative. He welcomes comments from students and parents; email him at


There is a nationwide effort, led by a number of my friends and colleagues, that has adopted the name the Amethyst Initiative, which proposes lowering the legal drinking age to 18. If you do the kind of work I do, or the deans do, that sounds great. It means you don't have to be so much concerned about people between their 18th and 21st birthdays.

One of the problems with the debate is that both sides are somewhat hyperbolic. We know for example that since the national 21-year drinking age was adopted, traffic deaths involving young people and alcohol have gone down. It's not often said that they went down for the decade before that also. It's not often said that such deaths have gone down nationwide. It's very hard to judge cause and effect.

I've encouraged the people involved in this Amethyst Initiative, who are very eager for me to sign on as a sponsor because of the years I've spent working on these issues, to lay out their evidence to show how they can assert that there is no appreciable difference between behavior at age 18 and behavior at age 21.

They will often remark that in Europe, where the drinking age is as young as 16 or 14 -- where young people are said commonly to be introduced to alcohol as part of a meal, by the fact that their parents will share wine with them in the course of their growing up -- it is said that the younger age creates fewer problems.

It may, but those are also cultures in which drunkenness is looked down on, where in our culture, frankly, it's not. In France, in England, in Italy, drunks are considered seriously damaged people, and there is not a history of playful acceptance of drunkenness as a way of life.

I served for a number of years on the National Institutes of Health task force and looked at matters involving alcohol abuse and especially young people. The problem is definitely out there. Drinking to the point of incompetence is definitely dangerous. Young people will drink amounts of alcohol that will mingle into their bloodstreams and do massive damage to their organs, and we see that happen every so often here.

In addition to the things we do -- the social norms education to make sure students know that, despite folklore, not everyone goes out and does that, and, despite folklore, not everyone wakes up the next morning in great shape and trots off to class -- that type of education is critical, but you can help also. Students need to know some things that I hope you will tell them in the course of today.

I don't know whether eventually I will sign this initiative or not. It depends on whether they are able to develop and publish the evidence to prove there's not a negative difference in the impact on young people. I'm not at this point persuaded that they have all their facts on the table.

I'm very interested in what parents, students and others are seeing as this discussion takes shape. I fear sometimes that part of the motive here is to make the lives of college deans and dorm head residents, and so on, easier. I don't think that's the point. But I'm also perfectly willing to be persuaded by good evidence.


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