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From the desk of Art Keffer
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Underage drinking: Why 21?


It’s a debate that just won’t go away: the furor over the minimum drinking age of 21. Both sides say, "What’s to debate?" A Jan. 12 op-ed piece, in the Christian Science Monitor, "There’s No Benefit to Lowering the Drinking Age," by Robert Voas, responds in highly readable style to the principal anti-21 arguments posed today. Excerpts from his article are reprinted below, along with additional comments, as a convenient way to understand the case for retaining the minimum 21 law.

After nearly four decades of exacting research on how to save lives and reduce injuries by preventing drinking and driving, there is [an] attempt afoot to roll back one of the most successful laws in generations: the minimum legal drinking age of 21….While public health researchers must produce painstaking evidence that’s subjected to critical scholarly review, lower-drinking-age advocates seem to dash off remarks based on glib conjecture and self-selected facts…It’s startling that anybody - given the enormous bodies of research and data - would consider lowering the drinking age.

I keep hearing the same refrains: "If you’re old enough to go to war, you should be old enough to drink," or "the drinking-age law just increases the desire for the forbidden fruit," or "lower crash rates are due to tougher enforcement, not the 21 law," or "Europeans let their kids drink, so they learn how to be more responsible," or

finally, "I did it when I was a kid, and I’m OK."

Soldiers, Sailors… First, I’m not sure what going to war and being allowed to drink have in common. The military takes in youngsters particularly because they are not yet fully developed and can be molded into soldiers. The 21 law is predicated on the fact that drinking is more dangerous for youth because they’re still developing mentally and physically, and they lack experience and are more likely to take risks. Ask platoon leaders and unit commanders, and they’ll tell you that the last thing they want is young soldiers drinking. For example, the U.S. Air Force is partnering with the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to offer grants to airbases and their communities to develop/implement underage drinking reduction strategies for airmen. Moreover, brain research has determined that the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain that is responsible for judgment – is not fully developed until about age 24, and that alcohol impairs and damages this part of the immature brain much more readily than the mature brain. This is especially dangerous when linked with the binge drinking that is so prevalent among young people today. Thousands die or nearly die yearly of alcohol poisoning.

Forbidden Fruit… As for the forbidden fruit argument, the opposite is true. Research shows that back when some states still had a minimum drinking age of 18, youths in those states who were under 21 drank more and continued to drink more as adults in their early 20s. In states where the drinking age was 21, teenagers drank less and continue to drink less through their early 20s.

Impact of Law… [The] minimum 21 law, by itself, has most certainly resulted in fewer accidents, because the decline occurred even when there was little enforcement and tougher penalties had not yet been enacted. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 21 law has saved 23,733 lives since states began raising drinking ages in 1975.

Europe has it together? Do European countries really have fewer youth drinking problems? No, that’s a myth. Compared to American youth, binge drinking rates among young people are higher in every European country except Turkey. Intoxication rates are higher in most European countries; in Britain, Denmark, and Ireland they’re more than twice the US level. Intoxication and binge drinking are directly linked to higher levels of alcohol-related problems, such as drinking and driving. A comprehensive review of recent studies of this issue by the U.S. Dept. of Justice confirms that the "perception that American young people drink more frequently and experience more alcohol-related problems than do their European counterparts" is indeed a myth.

But, I drank when I was a kid, and I’m OK. Thank goodness, because many kids aren’t OK. An average of 11 American teens dies each day from alcohol-related crashes. Underage drinking leads to increased teen pregnancy, violent crime, sexual assault, and huge costs to our communities. Among college students, it leads to 1,700 deaths, 500,000 injuries, 600,000 physical assaults, and 70,000 sexual assaults each year. Recently, New Zealand lowered its drinking age, which gave researchers a good opportunity to study the impact. The result was predictable: The rate of alcohol-related crashes among young people rose significantly compared to older drivers.

Moreover, in the six years since that country lowered its legal drinking age to 18, alcohol-related crashes have risen 12 percent among 18- to 19-year-olds and are up by 14 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds. In Kansas, persons, aged 15-24 years, comprise only 19% of the driving population, yet are involved in 31% of all traffic crashes and in almost 40% of alcohol-related crashes!

In closing, I want everyone to know why the minimum age for drinking alcoholic beverages is the age of 21. You don’t have agree, you just need to understand where I’m coming from.

Art Keffer is the police chief of Ellinwood.