Debate brews over lowering drinking age

Vt. proposal would make 18, not 21, the legal limit

$9.7 million in grants at stake


MONTPELIER, Vt. - In fall, Richard C. Marron, a Republican state representative, was reading a newspaper column by the recently retired president of Middlebury College, John M. McCardell Jr.

One of McCardell's targets was the drinking age, which in Vermont, and every other state, is 21.

"The 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law," McCardell wrote, saying it had led to binge drinking by teenagers. "Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground."

Marron, a four-term legislator who is vice chairman of the appropriations committee, decided that the law needed changing, and he has introduced a bill to lower the drinking age to 18, setting off a debate about public safety, age discrimination and the rights of young people, as well as whether it is possible to teach teenagers to drink responsibly.

"Now we have a legal age of 18 to do everything else, but you can't drink until you're 21," Marron said. "I'm not pushing it to the level of it being unconstitutional, but I do think it's a form of age discrimination. If we did something else, like said you couldn't use a public campsite until you're 21, we would have an equal-protection-of-laws issue."

Marron's bill is unlikely to pass, mainly because if it did, Vermont would lose $9.7 million in federal money for highway maintenance, grants available only if a state sets its drinking age at 21.

The state's public safety commissioner and health department, along with several legislators, argue that lowering the drinking age would exacerbate the problem of underage drinking and drunken driving.

Still, 17 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, and other legislators said they might be willing to consider such a bill if not for the loss of federal money. Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, might see some logic in the proposal if the federal highway money were not involved, said his spokesman, Jason Gibbs.

"Philosophically, it's difficult to reconcile the notion that you can enlist in the military, serve your country, go to war, but not go into your local pub and get a draft beer," Gibbs said.

State health officials say that "a higher drinking age is safer," he said, but the possibility that a lower drinking age could stem binge drinking is "certainly one that needs to be looked at very closely."

Marron, who says his ownership of a resort with a liquor license in Stowe, Vt., has no bearing on his support of the bill, said some teenagers drive to Canada, where they can legally drink at age 18.

States across the country raised the drinking age to 21 after the 1984 National Drinking Age Act tied that requirement to a percentage of federal highway money given to states.

In recent years, few legislative proposals have emerged to lower the drinking age, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, strongly opposes such efforts. Vermont is simultaneously considering a bill to raise the cigarette-smoking age from 18 to 21.

Gibbs said the governor opposed the bill on smoking because 18 is the age of "pre-eminent personal responsibility."

The American Cancer Society has generally withheld support for such proposals, saying little data exist their effectiveness and that such laws might make cigarettes more of a forbidden fruit.

A survey of Vermont voters conducted by a state senator last month, before debate or hearings on the proposals, found some support for lowering the drinking age (33 percent), but more for raising the smoking age (51 percent.)

The forbidden-fruit argument is also made by advocates for lowering the drinking age.

"Before the age was increased, we had a very different environment," said Ronald D. Liebowitz, president of Middlebury College. "You had kids drinking beer and getting sick on beer, but you didn't have gross alcohol poisoning and binge drinking."

He said many students "go off campus to private homes to drink and then, because this is a rural environment, they have to drive home."

Alex Koroknay-Palicz, 23, the executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, in Washington, has been campaigning for the bill on Vermont college campuses, saying it is a matter of civil rights and safety for teenagers.

"Instead of doing it in a controlled situation, going to a bar with a drink limit or something, they're doing it at keg parties in places that are harder to control," Koroknay-Palicz said.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the number of drunken drivers under 21 involved in fatal crashes decreased 61 percent from 1982 to 1998. The agency also estimates that 22,798 lives were saved from 1975 to 2003 by minimum-drinking-age laws.

Kerry Sleeper, Vermont's public safety commissioner, said fatal crashes involving alcohol dropped to 25 in 2002 from 50 in 1986, the year the drinking age was raised.

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