States Weighing Lower Age To Drink

Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 03/11/2008 - 5:27pm.

More than two decades after the U.S. set the national drinking age at 21, a movement is gaining traction to revisit the issue and consider allowing Americans as young as 18 to legally consume alcohol.

Serious discussions already are under way in several states.

In Vermont, the Legislature has formed a task force that will study whether the drinking age should be lowered.

In South Dakota, a petition is circulating that would ask the state to allow 19- and 20-year-olds to legally buy beer no stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol, while in Missouri a group is attempting to collect the 100,000 signatures needed to get a measure on the November ballot to lower the state's drinking age to 18.

And in South Carolina and Wisconsin, lawmakers have proposed that active-duty military personnel younger than 21 be allowed to buy alcohol, a move similar to one that was rejected last year in New Hampshire.

"What we're beginning to see are the early indications that the public is at least ready to consider re-examining this issue," said John McCardell, a former Vermont college president who runs Choose Responsibility, a non-profit group that advocates alcohol education for young adults and favors lowering the drinking age to 18.

Yet it is clear that efforts to amend the drinking age will face significant opposition -- from Congress, from a large segment of parents and from influential national lobbying groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

In voicing its opposition to the current proposals, MADD has highlighted statistics showing that highway drunken-driving fatalities have declined precipitously since the drinking age was raised. It further has argued that when 29 states lowered their drinking ages in the 1970s, virtually all of them saw drunken highway deaths spike.

"If you lower the drinking age, people are going to die," said Jeffrey Levy, a member of MADD's national board of directors whose son died in an alcohol-related crash.

Two factors are cited most in efforts to lower the drinking age: that binge drinking among college students has reached epidemic proportions, and that tens of thousands of young servicemen and women are fighting a war for a nation in which they cannot legally buy a beer, the very argument that persuaded many states to lower their drinking ages at the height of the war in Vietnam.

"Essentially what the current law says is that until you are 21 you lack the judgment and the maturity to drink," McCardell said. "Yet at the same time, we are a nation that says you can vote, you can sit on a jury, you can sign a legally binding contract, you can get married, you can put your life on the line in combat. It's an unbelievably condescending explanation."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that raising the drinking age to 21 reduced traffic fatalities involving 18- to 20-year-olds by 13 percent and has saved nearly 20,000 lives since 1975. Take Vermont, for example: Alcohol-related traffic fatalities plummeted about 40 percent in the 20 years after it raised its drinking age in 1985.

Hinda Miller, the Vermont senator who spearheaded the task force that will study the possibility of lowering the state's drinking age, fully anticipates a furor. Even Miller isn't convinced she supports lowering the age.

'Something isn't working'

Citing a 2006 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, she said 28 percent of Americans ages 12 to 20 had consumed alcohol in the month before the survey and 19 percent were defined as binge drinkers.

"Those kind of statistics tell you that something isn't working," she said, adding that after decades of public awareness about the risks of drunken driving, she doesn't think highway deaths would necessarily result from lowering the drinking age.

Still, in Vermont and elsewhere, any proposal to lower the drinking age will be a political hard sell. Since 1984, when Congress enacted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, states have been bound to conform to the law or risk losing about 10 percent of their federal highway funds. In Vermont, that would total some $17 million.

Though about half of the states lowered their drinking ages at the height of the Vietnam War, none has done so in recent decades for fear of losing the crucial federal funds. There has been no serious discussion in Illinois of lowering the drinking age, but some parent groups are concerned that if Missouri lowers its age, Illinois teenagers will cross the border to buy and consume alcohol there.

A slew of respected national organizations have argued for years that those under 21 are not mature enough to make responsible decisions when under the influence of alcohol. The American Medical Association, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and even some alcohol distributors have argued vehemently against lowering the drinking age.

McCardell, a leading national advocate for reducing the drinking age, is quick to point out that he doesn't advocate simply turning 18-year-olds loose in bars and liquor stores. He proposes instead that states lower the drinking age only if young adults are required to attend alcohol education classes and if extremely rigid enforcement for drinking violations is in place. McCardell has said Congress should grant waivers so select states would not lose their highway funding while they lower the drinking age to determine whether such proposals can help reduce binge drinking and the number of minors who violate drinking laws.

Constitutional issue?

Benjamin Casebolt, one of the leaders of Missouri 18 to Drink, is not approaching his group's efforts simply as a way to make booze more accessible to youths. At 25, Casebolt wouldn't even benefit from the law, but the devoted libertarian believes that denying rights to people who are otherwise legally adults is unconstitutional.

"I don't want anyone to get the impression that this is just a push to allow kids to go out and party," he said. "If we are going to really set about changing the law, with that must come responsible behavior."

Like many groups arguing to lower the drinking age, Missouri 18 to Drink points to the fact that Americans under age 21 are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group's Web site keeps a running tally of service members younger than 21 who have died in combat: As of the beginning of the year, it was 650, according to Casebolt.

Away from the political fray, some academics argue that essentially imposing a prohibition on those under 21 has just made the allure of drinking all the more irresistible. Indiana University researcher Ruth Engs has released findings that alcohol abuse among those under 21 increased markedly after the drinking age was raised.

"If you can't have something, you are drawn to it," she said. "And the pattern is that you overindulge, and do it really quickly, in order to get it done before you get caught."

Yet Levy, whose son died in a car crash while drinking underage, does not believe that taking the taboo out of alcohol will make teenagers responsible while using it.

"There are those who say that you have to get to the point where young people can drink in moderation," he said. "But that defies the reality of the college experience. The suggestion that kids drink because it's against the law is ludicrous. They drink because it's the culture on college campuses, because there are so often no consequences and because there is alcohol everywhere."

Chicago Tribune - March 11, 2008 - posted at

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Submitted by SadInAmerica on Tue, 03/11/2008 - 5:27pm.