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US Legal Drinking Age Becomes Subject of New Debate

The United States is one of only four nations with a legal drinking age as high as 21. The others are Malaysia, South Korea, and Ukraine. As yet there's no organized campaign to lower the standard in the United States.

The current nationwide legal drinking age of 21 was set by the U.S. Congress in 1984, following a furious campaign led by activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Since then, any state that dared to lower the drinking age would face the loss of federal highway funds. That's a powerful hammer, since the federal government typically pays 90 percent of new highway costs.

Still, the idea of lowering the drinking age is bubbling of late.

In May 2003, veteran Washington Post reporter T.R Reid wrote an article that appeared on his newspaper's opinion page. It was titled, Let My Teenager Drink.

He described his working days in London, where the legal drinking age is 16. "My daughters were drinking safely, legally, and under close supervision in the friendly neighborhood pub two blocks from our home," Mr. Reid wrote. He added that, to his way of thinking, teen drinking is far more dangerous in the United States because young people who must drink secretly often do so to excess.

Whether one agrees with Mr. Reid or not, the fact is that a lot of American kids under 21 are consuming alcohol on a regular basis. Richard Keeling is a medical doctor who once ran college health services in Virginia and Wisconsin and now edits the Journal of American College Health. He says there is little dispute that drinking is at the core of almost every college health issue.

"It has tentacles that link it to cigarettes and other drugs and to virtually all of the sexual behaviors that cause risk," he said. "It's associated in studies with suicidal behavior. It's associated, not with just binge drinking and binge eating. Alcohol really is central to many of the problems that affect college students' lives."

Yet Dr. Keeling notes that young people view alcohol consumption as "a marker of maturity." It helps them connect with others, it's perceived as fun and "edgy," and, despite many efforts to curtail it, it's a venerable ritual of fraternity and sorority life. Getting drunk, which can loosen inhibitions for sex, is sometimes the whole point of parties.

"And as a withheld privilege, it has a certain extra allure or charm," said Dr. Keeling. "And getting it early is therefore of a lot of interest to students, which is why drinking under age is a very big behavior on college campuses."

Dr. Keeling adds that lecturing students about the evils of drink will have no effect so long as alcohol provides this powerful social bond.

"Students come to expect that drinking will produce for them what they see in the alcohol ads," he explained. "It'll make 'em sexy and beautiful and hot and charming and interesting and wealthy. And all of that will happen just because they picked a particular brand of beer." Abusive drinking takes place under the noses of school administrators, Richard Keeling points out. He says college presidents have told him they'd love to test the idea that rolling back the drinking age might create a less intense drinking atmosphere on campus, and make the community safer. But he says they would never dare suggest it.

"If you say, 'Why not?' they say, 'cause I'd last 36 hours in my job," said Dr. Keeling.

America's high legal drinking age has spawned a cottage industry of fake identity cards and a shadow system in which older friends, and even some parents, supply teens with beer and liquor.

"In many of the tragedies associated with college drinking, there is in fact a background of encouragement, where others were cheering on someone who was drinking or helping or forcing or facilitating someone's, say, having 21 shots of liquor on a 21 birthday, or being involved in some sort of competitive exercise with other college students to try to see who could get the most [alcohol] in, without vomiting," Dr. Keeling reminded.

All of which, T.R Reid argues in his newspaper column, just adds to the mystique of drinking. "It makes me glad," he wrote, "that my teenagers had the legal right to go down the street to that pub."

Alex Kornoknay Palicz, 21, argues that all the current drinking age does is encourage teens to "get drunk before the cops come."

Mr. Palicz is president of the National Youth Rights Association, an organization of about 3,000 young people with chapters in several U.S. states. He says his organization favors the European model, where moderate drinking, in the presence of adult role models, is introduced at a young age within most families.

"That is a safer way to handle it, and a more respectful way to handle it," he said. "And if you were to remove the rigid drinking age that we have now, it would also be more respectful of the rights of young people."

Alex Palicz of the National Youth Rights Association points to a survey, published two years ago by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in which 71 percent of American eighth graders, age 12 and 13, said they found it fairly easy or very easy to get their hands on alcohol. In short, says Mr. Palicz, America's high legal drinking age is not only a failure, it's counter-productive.

But Mothers Against Drunk Driving has produced a study showing that 20,000 fewer people age 18 to 20 have died on U.S. roads since the drinking age was raised 19 years ago. That's true, Mr. Palicz concedes, but he says the highway death toll among people aged 21 to 24 has increased in the same proportion.

"What that means is that when people are new at drinking, when they don't have the experience with drinking, they have problems with it, because they're new at it," he explained. "And that's the same for people who start drinking at 18 or who start drinking at 21. So there really haven't been any lives saved overall by raising the drinking age."

One might think that beer and liquor companies would be leading a charge against the 21-year drinking age, in hopes of snaring younger customers. But they have been mostly silent on the issue. Mr. Palicz says that's because their alcoholic products are more alluring to kids when they are contraband. In Europe by contrast, he says, a beer or glass of wine with a meal is no big deal.

But lowering the drinking age would be a foolhardy mistake, says Joseph Califano Jr., who was secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration in the 1970s. Mr. Califano, who's now president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York, says anecdotal stories about safe and legal teenage drinking in homes and pubs ignore facts that are, well, sobering.

"British 15 and 16 year olds are twice as likely to binge drink and to have been drunk within the past month," he said. "If you lower the drinking age to 18, what you're really doing is lowering the drinking age to 16. When I was a young man growing up in Brooklyn, New York, the drinking age for beer was 18. There was no problem at age 15 or 16 getting beer under those circumstances. It is important for society to set some standards, especially when we know that alcohol is so implicated in the main causes of teen deaths and rapes, in racial incidents. And the standard is 21."

But what about the age discrimination argument? Young people who want the drinking age lowered complain bitterly that the right to drink is denied them even though they can vote at 18, can be drafted and die in military service, can drive and get married, and are barraged with offers of credit cards. Yes, says Joseph Califano, but buying and drinking alcohol is not a right.

"We have laws that protect kids from damaging toys, that say you can't get cigarettes till a certain age," explained Mr. Califano. "People do not have a right to purchase liquor. That's a bogus argument."

One might assume that, as those who strongly favor lowering the drinking age grow older and have more clout, support for change would reach a crescendo. But this logic overlooks the traditional pattern. Those young adults will soon enough have teenagers of their own. Then, they will not be so quick to demand that older teens should be free to drink whenever, and wherever, they please.