- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

Most of the recent press coverage of the Jenna and Barbara Bush under-age drinking incident has missed the main point: Making it a crime for a 19-year-old to buy an alcoholic beverage is not only unrealistic and absurd but it may be an underlying cause of todays serious problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses.
Prohibiting the sale of liquor to responsible young adults creates an atmosphere where binge drinking and alcohol abuse have become a problem. American teens, unlike their European peers, dont learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.
Alcohol is widely accepted and enjoyed in our culture. Studies show that moderate drinking can actually promote long life and good health. But we legally proscribe alcohol until the age of 21 (why not 30 or 45?). Jenna and Barbara and their classmates can drive cars, fly planes, marry, vote, pay taxes, take out loans and risk their lives as members of the U.S. armed forces. But laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia say that no alcoholic beverages may be sold to anyone until that magic 21st birthday. We didnt always have a national "21" rule. When I was in college, in the mid-1960s, the drinking age varied from state to state. This posed its own risks, with underage students crossing state lines to get a legal drink.
In the United States today a 14-year-old can be convicted of murder but a 19-year-old cant buy a beer. In parts of the Western world, moderate drinking by teen-agers and even children under their parents supervision is a given. Though the per capita consumption of alcohol in France, Spain and Portugal is higher than in the United States, the rate of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is lower. A glass of wine at dinner is normal practice. Children learn to regard moderate drinking as an enjoyable family activity rather than as something they have to sneak away to do. Banning drinking by young people makes it a badge of adulthood a tantalizing forbidden fruit.
The laws invite transgressions like fake IDs. Practically every 18-to-20-year-old I know in New York City has at least one fake ID (generally from another state) which represents them as being 21 or 22. Otherwise, theyre denied admittance to most places and left to hang out on the street.
Thats hardly a safer alternative. The Bush twins and their age-mates find themselves in a legal no mans land. At 18, theyre considered adults. Yet when they want to enjoy a drink like other adults, they are as they put it, "disenfranchised."
This is particularly ironic since todays teens are far more sophisticated than we were. Theyre treated less like children and have more responsibilities than we did. This makes the 21 restriction seem anachronistic.
My husband and I prepared our daughter for college life and the inevitable partying read keg of beer that goes with it. We explained the alcohol content, told her the alcohol level is lower when the drink is blended with ice and compared it with a glass of wine. Since the drink of choice on campus is beer, we contrasted its potency with wine and hard liquor and stressed the importance of not drinking on an empty stomach. Most importantly, we regularly reinforced the concept of choosing a designated driver. Happily, that already seemed a widely accepted practice among our daughters friends who drink.
Our purpose was to encourage her to know the alcohol content of what she is served. We wanted her to experience the effects of liquor in her own home, not on the highway and not for the first time during a college orientation week with free-flowing suds.
We should make access to alcohol legal at 18. At the same time, we should come down much harder on drunk drivers of all ages. We should intensify our efforts at alcohol education for adolescents. We want them to understand that it is perfectly OK not to drink. But if they do, alcohol should be consumed in moderation.
After all, we choose to teach our children about safe sex, including the benefits of teen abstinence. Why, then, cant we schools and parents alike teach them about safe drinking?

Elizabeth Whelan is president of The American Council on Science and Health.


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