Legalized alcohol use: How low do we go? | Guest Column


Alcohol is zealously marketed, easily obtained, and relatively inexpensive.

Combined with widespread beliefs that it is “benign,” not harmful, or that it creates fun, is “sexy” and positively defines one’s social status, alcohol has become a pervasive force within the culture. It is a force which is very seductive to youth.

Underage and high-risk drinking, alcohol abuse and binge drinking are complex problems. No one strategy can remedy the risks, but one effective, proven approach is the higher (age 21) Minimum Legal Driving Age, or MLDA.

A small number of vocal individuals, including many college presidents, are now proposing that the drinking age be lowered from 21 to 18. They base their opinion on a belief that abusive and high-risk drinking by youth in our society would be dramatically curtailed by simply adopting a lower drinking age and providing alcohol education.

In other words, if we just let 18-year-olds legally drink, the attraction, and subsequent risky behavior, would somehow disappear. Unfortunately, the facts do not support their argument.

In the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War, 29 U.S. states lowered the drinking age to 18 to align with newly lowered military and voting ages. More than 100 college presidents are now calling for a debate on whether the minimum legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18, citing that "a culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' – often conducted off-campus – has developed."

While each side has statistics to support its position, most of the health and safety evidence falls squarely on the side of a 21 age limit. At least 50 peer-reviewed MLDA studies agree that a higher minimum legal drinking age is effective in preventing alcohol-related deaths and injuries among youth.

The MLDA is the most well-studied alcohol control policy in the country, and the research shows that the policy’s effect is very consistent.

In the states that reduced the MLDA, alcohol traffic fatalities and injuries increased dramatically, causing 16 of the 29 states to change back to age 21 by 1983.

In New Zealand, where the drinking age was dropped in 1999 from 20 to 18, just seven years later researchers found that significantly more alcohol-involved crashes had occurred among 15- to 19-year-olds. There were also increased trips to emergency departments, and an increase in drunken driving and disorderly conduct charges – indicating a trickle-down effect of the young teens getting alcohol from older friends.

In a recent study comparing rates of alcohol consumption and alcohol-related problems in the U.S. to Europe, it was found that rates and frequency of drinking among European youth are higher than here. Binge drinking rates among young people are higher in every European country except Turkey. In Britain, Denmark and Ireland, they are more than twice that of the U.S. level. European countries are now looking to the U.S. for research and experience regarding the age-21 policy.

No one policy can solve the problem, but prevention science demonstrates a comprehensive, multi-layered approach is needed to prevent alcohol and other drug related problems. A July 2007 Gallup poll showed that 77 percent of the public supported keeping the minimum legal drinking age 21.

Alcohol remains the No. 1 youth drug problem in America. More young people die from alcohol-related causes than from all other illicit drugs combined. Nationally, 5,000 people under age 21 die from alcohol-related injuries each year and each day nearly 8,000 youth, ages 12 to 17, will drink alcohol for the first time. Multiple years of the Healthy Youth Survey results show that the “perception of risk” of alcohol for Orcas High School 11th- and 12th-graders drops by 50 percent.

What can you do? If your child will be heading to college soon, find out about the alcohol policy of their prospective schools; continue to talk to your child about alcohol and drug use, peer pressure, binge drinking and their understanding of “abuse.”

Support of school-based prevention curriculum that helps students understand the physical, as well as emotional effects, of alcohol and other drugs on the brain and body is critically important.

Support for consequences on the local, state and national level and both federal and state funding for programs that secure families is imperative.

Lastly, continue to educate yourself on the issues and remember that parents and/or caring adults are the best line of prevention.

— Marta Nielsen is the director of the Orcas Island Prevention Partnership.

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