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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Should The Drinking Age Be Lowered?

A recent issue of Parade magazine featured an article entitled "Should the Drinking Age Be Lowered?" Many people absorbed in the national debate over the issue overlook the fact that law was set at 21 for a reason: it saves lives.

In 1984, the minimum drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. The reductions in highway fatalities and the latest brain research clearly demonstrate that the drinking age saves lives.

For nearly 40 years, most states voluntarily set their minimum drinking age law at 21. But in the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War, 29 states lowered their drinking age to the newly reduced military enlistment and voting age. And there was no uniformity in age limits of those 29 states, their drinking ages ranged from 18 to 20 and often varied based on the type of alcohol being consumed (18 for beer, 20 for liquor, for example).

An immediate increase in alcohol traffic fatalities and injuries was brought about by the decrease in the drinking age. By 1983, the increase was so great that 16 states voluntarily raised their drinking age back to 21, resulting in a direct decrease in drinking and driving deaths.

However, some states kept a lower drinking age, establishing a patchwork of states with varied drinking ages that was referred to as "blood borders." Teens would drive across state lines to drink, and then drive back home drunk across state lines, often killing and injuring themselves and others.

At this time, the country got serious about drunk driving. And because it was apparent that a 21 drinking age law reduced alcohol-related fatalities and injuries, there was a movement, led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to decrease drunk driving deaths and injuries by raising the minimum drinking age to 21.

Responding to growing evidence that a 21 drinking age law would save lives, on July 17, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Uniform Drinking Age Act into law, mandating all states to adopt 21 as the legal drinking age within five years. The National Traffic Highway Administration estimates that since then, the 21 minimum drinking age law has saved about 900 lives per year. There are over 17,000 people alive today since all states adopted the law in 1988, roughly as many people as the crowd at a sold-out professional basketball game, or a medium-sized U.S. college.

The 21 minimum drinking age law is in fact considered one of the most effective public safety laws ever passed. It is also one of the nation's most examined laws, as numerous studies have been conducted to measure the law's effectiveness, which all come to the same conclusion: the law saves lives.

Since the law went into effect, youth drinking rates have also declined. The 2006 Monitoring the Future study reveals the decline of alcohol consumption among American teens, and the bulk of the evidence shows that 21 minimum drinking age laws decrease underage consumption of alcohol from 1960 to 2000. Over the last 15 years, after the passage of the 21 minimum drinking age laws, the percentage of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who consumed alcohol in the past year decreased 38 percent, 23 percent and 14 percent respectively.

Brain Changes
The brain goes through major changes during adolescence and alcohol can serious damage to the long- and short-term growth processes. Development of the frontal lobe and the refinement of pathways and connections continue into the mid-20s. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. What's more, short-term or moderate drinking can harm learning and memory far more in youth than in adults. Adolescents only need to drink half as much as adults to suffer the same negative effects.

Here are some quick facts about alcohol use and brain development:
• Teenage drinkers are not only at greater risk for developing alcoholism later in their lives, they are also at greater risk for developing alcoholism more quickly and at younger ages, particularly chronic, relapsing alcoholism.

• Alcohol effects both behavior and brain function differently in adolescents and adults.

• Adolescents are more susceptible than adults to the effects of alcohol on learning and memory.

• Alcohol affects the sleep cycle, which results in impaired learning and memory as well as interrupted release of hormones necessary for growth and maturation.

• Alcohol affects every part of the brain, affecting coordination, emotional control, thinking, decision-making, hand-eye movement, speech, and memory.

• Adolescent drinkers perform poorly in school, are more likely to fall behind and have a higher risk of social problems, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence.

• Because the brain is especially vulnerable to alcohol-related damage, binge drinking is very dangerous for adolescents.

Underage Drinking and Adults
Underage drinking is as much an adult problem as a teen problem. Adults continue to let those under the legal drinking age to illegally drink by selling alcohol to those under 21, providing or purchasing alcohol, ignoring teens when they openly talk about their drinking exploits, and declining to hold other adults and youth accountable for breaking the law.

Communities must send a strong and consistent message that underage alcohol use is illegal and will not be tolerated. Teens and adults should be held accountable when they break the law.

Alcohol is the No. 1 youth problem in America. Get the facts on underage drinking, how to respond to those tough questions about the law and what you can do about underage drinking by visiting

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