Group Stirs Debate on Legal Drinking Age

National safety groups formed coalition against lowering federal drinking age.

January 08, 2009, 12:20 AM

Oct. 9, 2007 — -- During the Democratic debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire last month, the candidates were asked to answer a viewer's question about whether they would support lowering the national drinking age from 21 to 18 years old.

"Especially because we trust people at this age to make life and death decisions in our military," the questioner asked.

"Of course, they should be able to drink at age 18, and they should be able to vote at age 16," said candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, garnering big applause from the college-age audience.

The question reflected what has become a growing debate, largely in the media, spurred by a small Vermont organization attempting to drum up support for lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 years old.

"Legal age 21 has not worked. Most people at the age of 21 have already consumed alcohol," said John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. McCardell now heads a nonprofit organization started in January called Choose Responsibility.

The group is calling for lowering the national legal drinking age to 18 combined with education about the effects and risks of alcohol.

"The current drinking age has just driven the drinking out of public view," McCardell told ABC News. "It has meant that instead of drinking in bars or restaurants where there is supervision, it's happening in dorms and dark corners."

He argues that young people should be given alcohol education, much like driver's education, and then rewarded with a drinking license, for which they become eligible at 18.

McCardell hasn't gotten a lot of support thus far. A July Gallup poll suggests 77 percent of Americans would oppose a federal law to lower the drinking age.

The debate over the national drinking age echos the debate during the 1970s, when men as young as 18 years old were conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War but were not allowed to drink.

During that decade, 29 states lowered their drinking age to 18, 19 or 20. However, in the 1980s the debate over drinking centered on drunken drivers.

In 1984, the federal government passed a law that tied federal highway funds to raising the drinking age to 21.

By 1988, almost every state had raised its drinking age to 21, something McCardell said was done without adequate public debate or education about the effects of alcohol.

Leading national safety groups -- including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Medical Association, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety -- announced Tuesday they had formed a coalition called Support 21 to highlight scientific studies that say fatalities have decreased since the legal drinking age was raised to 21.

"Science speaks for itself," said Glynn Birch, national president of MADD. "The 21 law saves lives on the road and keeps countless youth from starting to drink at early ages."

The safety groups noted that alcohol-related fatalities remain the leading cause of death among teens -- taking more than 5,000 lives a year -- and that lowering the drinking age would only compound the problem.

"If we lower the drinking age we will be killing more children on the highways," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety at a news conference Tuesday.

"Clandestine, underage drinking is a problem, but lowering the drinking age is not the solution," Lund said.

The groups cited a recent analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of nearly 50 peer-reviewed studies of countries that had changed their drinking age and found that lowering the minimum drinking age to 18 increases fatalities by 10 percent.

The safety groups called McCardell out by name and said his "reasoning about what works is prescientific."

However, McCardell argues Support 21 is too focused on traffic fatalities and ignores the need for alcohol education.

"They're dead wrong," McCardell told ABC News, pointing to other studies that suggest more lives have been lost by 18-to-24-year-olds in alcohol-related incidents off the road.

"To them it's only about traffic fatalities," he said.

While the safety coalition agrees binge drinking and underage drinking continue to be a problem, they argue that lowering the drinking age will only exacerbate it.

In the last three years, legislators in Vermont, New Hampshire and Wisconsin have introduced bills to lower the drinking age, though in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, those bills were targeted only for military personnel). However, all the legislative efforts died without much support.

McCardell says Choose Responsibility has only three staff members, and is funded largely with a grant from the Robertson Foundation. Julian Robertson is a wealthy investment fund manager from New York.

McCardell said the organization does not have any plans to lobby Congress to introduce legislation to lower the drinking age. Instead, he hopes to stir up a grass-roots movement and national debate about the drinking age.

"It's about preparing young adults to make responsible decisions and promote alcohol education," he said.

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