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Tempest in a bottle

Should drinking alcohol be legal at 18, instead of 21? Now that college presidents have proposed a debate, here are the statistics and the science that could shape the outcome.

September 01, 2008|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

A growing number of college administrators and health professionals aren't convinced that the age-21 laws help curb problem drinking.

"Not all the evidence is on one side of the question," says John M. McCardell Jr., former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit group that advocates for changes in minimum-drinking-age laws and that circulated the college president's petition. "We're not ignoring science. There is science on both sides of the question."

For example, the reduction in traffic fatalities may be credited to other safety measures, such as the use of restraints, better automobile design, improved hospital trauma care and stricter traffic laws, in addition to the lower drinking age, some studies suggest.

Those on the age-18 side have studies as well.

* A 2003 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, though fewer high school-age students drink now compared with the late 1970s, the rates of binge drinking among all adults 18 and older have risen. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., the study encompasses 1993 to 2001 and showed rates of binge drinking have increased the most (56%) among underage drinkers.

This out-of-control drinking may be fueled, McCardell says, by the age-21 laws, which drive underage youth to drink in clandestine settings and apart from older adults who might model more appropriate behavior.

"College presidents are limited on campus to a message of abstinence-only," he says. "They can't say drink moderately or drink responsibly. They can only say abstain."

* Though alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined overall since 1982, deaths have begun to inch up again in recent years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

* A 2003 study showed that in many countries with lower minimum drinking ages, 15- and 16-year-olds are less likely to become intoxicated compared with teens in the U.S.

McCardell agrees that studies show the younger someone starts drinking, the greater the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence. But, he says, the 2006 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine study shows that the correlation is greatest at younger ages.

"Between 13 and 18, the effect is dramatic. But between 18 and 21 it's visible but insignificant," McCardell says. "What we ought to look at is not keeping 18-year-olds from drinking, it's keeping 13-year-olds from drinking."

A major question not answered by research is whether mild or occasional drinking, such as a beer or glass of wine, causes any physical harm or precipitates harmful behavior in 18-year-olds, says Brenda Chabon, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

"It's the way people drink, not the fact of drinking," Chabon says. "What would harm a developing brain is repeated hangovers and blackouts and head trauma from falling. But if someone were drinking moderately from age 18, I haven't seen any data to show that would have harmful effects in the long run."

There is little evidence in humans to suggest that mild to moderate drinking in late adolescence causes any damage, says David J. Hanson, professor emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, who has studied the literature.

"The research is almost exclusively based on rats and humans who are alcohol addicted," he says. "It doesn't look at moderate drinking at all. We've got a lot of cross-cultural evidence that it isn't harmful at all."

Role of parents, industry

The argument over the minimum legal drinking age has heated up in recent years due to publicity given to out-of-control drinking among college-age youth and tragic deaths such as Gordie Bailey Jr.'s.

"We need to ask what is driving this behavior," Foster notes. "We're really tolerating a culture of substance abuse on our college campuses. There is no evidence that lowering the drinking age would address these problems."

The alcohol industry, which advertises heavily to college students, should come under the microscope, as well as the role of parents in setting attitudes and expectations for their children, she says.

Bailey's stepfather, Michael B. Lanahan, who has started a foundation to raise awareness about college drinking, says he doesn't know if a lower drinking age would have saved his stepson, but he's pleased that the issue is getting attention.

"Parents have to question their own governance of the children in high school," says Lanahan, who lives in Dallas. "Why do so many kids have fake IDs and we let it go? Why do bars get away with serving underage kids? If parents think college presidents are going to police this issue, they are sorely mistaken."

Proposals to curb youth drinking should explore all solutions, not just lowering the drinking age, Toomey says.

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