When College junior Cameron Clark looks back on this fall semester, he will fondly remember fine dinners paired with appropriate wines in the company of friends.
But these memories aren't from Philadelphia, where the minimum legal drinking age is 21. Instead, they are souvenirs he is accumulating during his semester abroad at the Universite Lumiere Lyon in France.
In the United States, the drinking age has received a large amount of media attention over the past month due to the Amethyst Initiative. This movement, which has the support of 130 college and university presidents, supports open debate on the issue of lowering the drinking age.
Penn President Amy Gutmann, while supporting a lower drinking age, opted not to sign the initiative. She said she has not seen conclusive evidence linking a higher drinking age with increased binge drinking, one of the initiative's main claims.
To drink or not to drink
Groups - such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Mothers Against Drunk Driving - that support the current drinking age claim that a slew of public health issues like domestic violence, alcohol dependency and the reduction of drunk driving are all positively affected by having a drinking age of 21.
According to Grace Kronenberg, assistant director of Choose Responsibility, the organization behind the Amethyst Initiative, the movement may lead to lowering the drinking age, but the goal of the project is to promote an informed debate and give a unified voice to leaders in higher education.
Kronenberg and her organization are frustrated with what they believe are the effects of the current drinking age.
"Although the number of people who are drinking under 21 has decreased, those who choose to drink, drink more and are drinking more dangerously," she said
However, groups that support keeping the drinking age at 21 also cite facts in support of their position.
Rebecca Shaver, state executive director for MADD in Pennsylvania, believes that a lower drinking age could hinder brain development.
"The brain is a work in progress and hasn't totally developed until an individual is in their 20s," she said.
Kim Crump, spokeswoman for the Alcohol Policy Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, agrees with MADD about the biological dangers of lowering the drinking age. She accused the Amethyst Initiative of having a "pro-consumption agenda," saying that the younger a person starts drinking, the more likely they are to become heavy drinkers. This would in turn benefit alcohol distribution companies.
"It's the dirty little secret of the alcohol industry that they are very dependent on heavy and addicted drinkers," she said, citing the fact that 20 percent of drinkers account for 80 percent of the alcohol bought.
Choose Responsibility and other organizations supporting a lower drinking age believe that since an individual can partake in adult activities like fighting in the military and voting at age 18, they shouldn't be barred from consuming alcohol.
In opposition to these claims, Crump argues that there are many "arbitrary ages" in our society -- one must be 30 to run for the U.S. Senate, 35 to run for president and 25 to rent a car.
The Amethyst Initiative's focus on higher education institutions has also angered some.
Crump characterized it as "elitist" that college presidents are talking about this issue because "not every 18 to 20 year old goes to college."
Kronenberg defends the Amethyst Initiative's focus on colleges and universities with the fact that 55 percent of high school graduates go on to college and that colleges are home to a large number of individuals under 21.
She added that college presidents are only the first step and they would like to expand their outreach to parents, students and the military.
The gloom and doom predictions of CSPI and MADD are not echoed by Penn students who have spent time in countries with lower drinking ages.
Overall, Penn students who have experience abroad have drawn the conclusion that in foreign countries, there is more of a focus on enjoying drinks for their taste and having a good time rather than just getting drunk.
While studying abroad in Argentina this semester, College junior Molly Johnsen has noticed that the wide availability of alcohol takes the emphasis off getting drunk.
"You hardly ever hear Argentines bragging about how drunk they got the night before or how many shots they took," she wrote in an e-mail, adding that "people don't get wasted when they pregame."
Clark's experience with the drinking culture in France has been similar to Johnsen's in Argentina.
Instead of drinking beer out of a plastic cup at a raucous frat party, Clark recounts enjoying champagne and rose wine before dinner and light cocktails while socializing in the evening.
Clark recognizes that Europe is not devoid of alcohol-related problems, but he has noticed a decidedly different atmosphere.
"It's not a perfect world in Europe," he wrote in an e-mail, "but for the most part, people drink to socialize and enjoy, not solely to drink."
Experiences like this have failed to sway the opinion of groups like CSPI and MADD.
Crump believes that the relaxed atmosphere experienced by Americans like Clark and Johnsen is merely a facade that hides far worse problems.
According to her organization, European students "drink more and drink more dangerously than American students."
"Britain and Ireland have a raging binge-drinking problem amongst their college-age populations," she said.
Shaver echoes Crump's sentiments.
"It's not that [the Europeans] aren't having problems. I think they are" she said.
Despite these organizations' skepticism of the drinking culture abroad, Penn students with firsthand experience in foreign countries believe that a lower drinking creates a safer atmosphere
Wharton and College junior Baylee Feore, a native of Guam, which has a drinking age of 18, sees the American drinking age as encouraging overconsumption of alcohol. Penn is the only place she has been where people express a desire to get "blackout drunk."
Blast from the past
But things haven't always been this way.
Before the drinking age was federally mandated at 21 in 1984, some say the drinking culture at Penn was not as focused on inebriation as it is now.
Sandy Eynon, a 1969 Wharton alumnus, recalls that while alcohol was an integral part of social life at Penn in the '60s, it was not the main focus and it was not drunk dangerously.
"We weren't sitting around sipping our cocktails, but it was not let's have 10 shots quickly," he said.
Eynon, a brother in Delta Kappa Epsilon, described an atmosphere similar to fraternity parties at Penn today, complete with a keg in the basement and a bar, but he emphasized that on the whole, people drank because they enjoyed it.
For example, he recalled sitting around with his fraternity brothers, casually sipping a beer, as an alternative to getting drunk.
Despite the experiences of individuals abroad and before the 1984 act was passed, the opposing sides of this issue are no where near close to a compromise.
Advocates of a lower drinking age claim that teens will learn to drink more responsibly if allowed to consume alcohol at a younger age, but Crump and CSPI disagree.
"There is no evidence that teaching kids to drink is helpful," she said. "Parents should teach them why not to drink until they are 21."
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