TORONTO -- Sarah Rafson and her college friends picked an off-campus bar on her 19th birthday and did what in America requires a fake ID or a bartender willing to look the other way.
Legal drinking in Canada starts at 18 or 19, depending on the province. That's why many U.S. college students, including Ms. Rafson, a University of Toronto junior from Squirrel Hill, automatically become legal drinking adults when they head north of the border to study, only to become minors again when they return home.
"It feels like walking backward in time."
Sure, Ms. Rafson says, there are drunken college parties in this city. But she swears she sees fewer instances of her peers slamming down drink after drink than she does in the United States. Her own birthday celebration in November, the day she sipped her first legal drop of alcohol, stopped at a couple of drinks, and she says she's been a light drinker since.
"It's legal," she said. "It's no big deal."
Conventional wisdom in the United States says making people wait to imbibe legally keeps them safer from alcohol abuse. But John McCardell Jr., 58, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, has caused a stir of late, claiming that an epidemic of underage and binge drinking is proof the current approach doesn't work. Dr. McCardell says it's time the United States brings back the 18-year-old drinking age.
Specifically, he proposes a system under which "drinking licenses" would permit consumption at an earlier age after mandatory education about alcohol and its risks. He said the 21-year-old drinking age, the standard across America for almost two decades, hasn't stopped young people from drinking themselves into the hospital or the grave.
"All you're doing is driving it off campus or underground. You're not ending it," Dr. McCardell said. "You're sending it to much less safe environments."
Pros and cons
There are plenty of people who say what he's proposing is nothing short of insanity.
Those lining up to object include academic researchers, government officials and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, all of whom say the preponderance of scientific evidence shows that raising the drinking age reduces problems.
Federal highway crash data indicates the 21-year-old drinking age has saved nearly 25,000 lives over the past three decades, said Ralph Hingson, a division director with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
He also said the law has helped curb alcohol consumption among high school students.
Dr. Hingson said he shares Dr. McCardell's concern about alcohol's toll. But the solution is not to start young people drinking sooner.
Just look at Europe, he says, where lower minimum ages are common, yet adolescent alcohol abuse is generally worse than in the United States.
"There is no evidence that lowering the age here would help, and I would be concerned that it would make things worse," he said.
Dr. McCardell, though, said he's not without research that supports his position.
A study published in 2002 by the journal Addiction found that while alcohol use was more pervasive among Canadian students ages 15 to 24, heavy drinking was significantly less prevalent than among their U.S. counterparts.
"It's hard to look at the Canadian example and say things would be much worse here if we lowered the drinking age," Dr. McCardell said.
In the United States, there is no national drinking age per se, though all 50 states set theirs at 21. About half had lower limits but reconsidered after the Reagan administration in 1984 said any state unwilling to adopt 21 as its drinking age would lose 10 percent of its federal highway funds.
The experience has been different in Canada.
Ontario, the province that includes Toronto, raised its drinking age in 1979 from 18 to 19, and it's stayed there since, meaning the bars are open to thousands who are a year out of high school.
Opinions at the bar
Across this sprawling city of 2.5 million people, college students have no shortage of places to let loose, provided their wallets can absorb metropolitan bar prices.
Some flock to Toronto's Entertainment District, a bustling and sometimes rowdy patch of Downtown not far from the CN Tower, where thousands of revelers from the city and suburbs jam roads and sidewalks in the early morning hours.
Others migrate to quieter settings such as Kensington Market, an eclectic mix of cafes, shops and narrow one-way streets within a few blocks of the University of Toronto campus.
Inside The Embassy, a Kensington Market bar, owner David Brandon weighed the pros and cons of his country's lower drinking age while drawing a pitcher of beer from the tap.
"Nineteen- and 20-year-olds, when they've had a few beers, they're obviously harder to handle than people who are older," he said with a thick accent from his native England. "They're full of testosterone. There are so many things they're trying to do and discover. It can be messy."
Even so, he said, a 21-year-old drinking age "is kind of crazy." People underage will drink anyway, often in absurd quantities, "like a kid who goes to a party with a [bottle] of vodka and weighs 80 pounds," he said.
Some college students in this city said being able to drink legally in bars limits consumption, and thus problems.
But shortly before 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday, there was a reminder that things can turn ugly fast, even in those settings. As security staff outside a Kensington Market nightclub called Super Market discussed the drinking age, a patron who looked to be in his early 20s was dragged in a headlock out the front door and deposited forcefully on the sidewalk after becoming verbally abusive inside.
Often, newly legal drinkers handle alcohol poorly, said Ty Le, a security manager at the club, standing a few feet from where the scuffle occurred.
"But after a while, the novelty wears off," he said. "It's not taboo any more. It's not something worth getting all silly over."
Both sides of the minimum age debate agree on this: The latest data on student drinking is cause for alarm.
In March, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that alcohol misuse in college had worsened, and nearly one in four full-time students nationwide met the medical threshold for substance abuse or dependence.
The percentage of students on campus who abuse alcohol is no greater than in 1993, but the frequency of binge drinking has increased. Binge drinking is generally defined as five or more drinks per sitting for a male, four for a female.
Each year, more than 1,700 alcohol-related deaths occur among those 18 to 24 years old, including motor vehicle crashes and other unintended injuries. Drunkenness is seen as a major contributor to sexual assault and other campus crime as well as academic problems.
Dr. McCardell, 58, a historian, says one need look no further than Prohibition to see the folly of believing a law can stop drinking. He's formed a nonprofit organization, Choose Responsibility, to promote discussion of his idea.
For all the criticism that Dr. McCardell has received, the lower age is favored by some, including his state's governor, Jim Douglas, and James Wright, the president of Dartmouth College in neighboring New Hampshire. A spokesman for Mr. Douglas noted, however, that Vermont could not afford to lose 10 percent of its highway money.
If nothing else, Dr. McCardell's crusade mirrors a view long held by some college administrators: That students who drink in hiding because of the higher drinking age are at even greater risk.
A few have suggested that more could be done to promote responsible drinking on their campuses by allowing it in moderation, rather than banning it entirely.
Some Canadians say lower binge drinking rates in their country are owed partly to societal differences, including a higher share of commuting students who live at home and the absence of an "Animal House" culture like found among American fraternities.
At the University of Toronto, campus police Inspector Sam D'Angelo said he knew of no campus alcohol deaths in his 18 years with the force. He said a lower drinking age, coupled with education, seems to work and that raising the minimum age "doesn't make any sense from my perspective."
Inspector D'Angelo said the eight or so alcohol-related ambulance runs to campus each year -- down from a decade ago -- is minuscule for a university with 15,000 students living on campus. Raising the drinking age would simply make it harder for police to track where the drinking is occurring.
"Why would we want to go there?" he asked.
Others don't buy that argument.
In Canada, alcohol is the largest contributor to deaths among Canadians 18 and 19 years old, said Robert Mann, associate professor of public health at the University of Toronto and senior scientist at the university-affiliated Center for Addiction and Mental Health.
He wishes his own country had a higher drinking age, noting the highway deaths that have been averted in America.
"What's the trade-off? Making college administrators' jobs a little more difficult, or saving thousands of lives?" he asked. "You do the math."
Matter of responsibility
Sipping a pint of draft beer in an outdoor cafe after finishing a waitress shift, Toronto resident and second-year university student Amelia Ettinger, 20, said the age debate misses a larger point.
There are teens who can handle alcohol responsibly now, and older adults who never will.
"Age is irrelevant," she said "The focus should be on understanding why people abuse it."
Ms. Rafson remembers the exhilaration of hoisting her first legal drink -- a mojito -- in public. "I felt totally cool, first of all. I felt like I was so mature," she said.
When she's home in Pittsburgh, "We go out for a coffee and talk," she said. In Canada, "you'll meet up for an afternoon beer. It's no big deal. It's not all about getting drunk."Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Associated Press
University student Amelia Ettinger, 20, sips a beer at an outdoor eatery and bar in Toronto. She says there should be less emphasis on the drinking age and more on why some abuse alcohol.
Click photo for larger image.
Death on campus (04/01/07)
University of Toronto student Dan Suter, 19, an Allderdice High School graduate, says the 21-year-old minimum age encourages more consumption.
"In either country, if you want alcohol you can get it ..."
Brian Demers, 20, an MIT student and national board member with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, supports the current U.S. law.
"We support the 21 minimum drinking age because we know it saves lives ..."
Drinking age debate: Support for minimum 21 drinking age
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Canada's drinking age
Click image for larger version.Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Sarah Rafson, 19, of Squirrel Hill, drinks legally in Toronto, where she is a student at the University of Toronto.
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Bill Schackner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977.