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WETZSTEIN: Drinking age at 18 will hurt women

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

This summer, more than 100 college and university presidents and chancellors called for a public discussion about the legal drinking age.

"Twenty-one is not working," say the 130 academic leaders who have signed a statement with the Amethyst Initiative (www.amethyst initiative.org), an advocacy group formed to kick off the drinking-age debate.

Forbidding alcohol to people under age 21 has led to "a culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' - often conducted off-campus," the group says.

This "abstinence" policy denies the maturity of young adults, who at 18, can vote, sign contracts, serve on juries and enlist in the Army, they add. It also encourages use of fake identification, which erodes students' respect for the law.

In 2009, when Congress takes up its transportation bill, it could change the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, they say. Federal law currently reduces a state's federal highway funding by 10 percent if it doesn't set 21 as the legal drinking age.

It's time for an "informed and dispassionate public debate" about that 10 percent defunding law and the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age, Amethyst Initiative leaders say.

Plenty has been written about this issue, especially the reduction in traffic deaths due to the age limit.

My sense is that lowering the drinking age would have zero benefit for young women, but greatly increase their risks for problems. Women are not only the fairer sex, they are the cuddlier sex - and those layers of body fat affect the way they handle alcohol.

Alcohol dissolves slower in fat than in water, according to "Women Under the Influence," a 2006 book from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (www.casacolumbia.org).

Since women's bodies have more fatty tissue and less water compared with men of similar sizes, women metabolize alcohol slower than men and "maintain higher concentrations of alcohol in their blood."

"As a result, women get intoxicated faster and experience worse hangovers even when drinking the same amount as men," the CASA book says. "In fact, one drink for a woman tends to have the same impact as two drinks for a man."

So are you saying a college coed can't handle a drinking game as well as the frat guy over there?

"I would say that equality is important, but in the face of information, one has to temper one's attitude - you have to take into account what the facts are," says Susan Foster, a CASA executive who studies the effects of substance abuse on women.

"Even if you think you may be handling an equal consumption to a young man your age, you don't know what the effects are on you," she says. "We know that you could get addicted faster than the guys. And the health consequences, which may not be appearing to you now, are likely to come on faster."

According to "Women Under the Influence," research suggests that drinking alcohol puts young women at greater risk for risky sex, teen pregnancy, sexual disease, poor academic performance, infertility, miscarriage, suicide, accidents, rape and sexual violence, domestic violence, brain impairment (e.g., the ability to learn, remember and think abstractly), liver disease, heart disease, breast cancer, and tobacco use.

Female drinkers are more likely than male drinkers to abuse drugs and have mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders and eating disorders.

Quite a sobering list, don't you think?

The Amethyst Initiative says if the drinking age were changed (i.e., lowered), states could safeguard young people by setting different rules for on-premise and off-premise alcohol purchases, or allow students to buy only lower-alcohol beverages. Another idea - my favorite - would be to issue students an "alcohol license" after they take a campus alcohol education class.

I have a few thoughts about that student alcohol license:

• Require a minimum grade point average. Any GPA below 3.0 and it's Hi-C for you.

• Require a no-ticket driving record. Had a fender-bender last summer? Come back in 12 months.

• Require a minimum Body Mass Index. It takes a big man (and a bigger woman) to not act stupid after two alcoholic drinks. BMIs 24 and below need not apply.

• Require an in-person interview with the college or university president, who personally administers the alcohol education and signs the license. Celebratory toast in the dean's office is optional.

Cheryl Wetzstein's On the Family appears on Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.