On one point -- and only one -- I agree with Opinion Editor James Werrell on a bill that would lower the legal drinking age in South Carolina to 18 for members of the military.
Werrell points out that it would pose an additional headache for police and merchants to verify military IDs when they already are hard pressed to determine the true age of people possessing or trying to buy alcohol.
Werrell's solution, lowering the legal age for everyone, is where we part company. He maintains that because 18 is an age at which our nation not only allows young men and women to be soldiers but also to enter contracts and vote, drinking ought to be OK.
He argues that by setting the threshold at 21, the state encourages young people to "drink secretly -- in dorm rooms, in secluded fields or at unsupervised house parties where binge drinking and other reckless behavior is common." He also writes that Canada and Mexico, like most of the world, permit citizens to imbibe before they reach 21.
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At the same time, he applauds efforts to rid highways of drunk drivers.
Let me take those arguments in obverse order:
In much of the U.S., including York County, public transit is either inadequate or non-existent, so kids who drink travel by auto. Although some parents insist their teen-ager sign a pledge to call for a ride when they are faced with such situations, many kids admit they either have driven after they had been drinking or ridden with someone who had.
The myth that young people elsewhere "drink responsibly" doesn' t hold water. A survey of 15- and 16-year-old European students concluded that the only nation where teens binge-drink less than in the U.S. was Turkey!
Furthermore, the notion that current law encourages alcohol abuse by young people by forcing them to drink in secret implies they would "drink responsibly" if they could do so openly, without fear of retribution.
Granted, Mr. Werrell or I observed our 21st birthday longer ago than either cares to admit, but have kids changed so much that they want to party in the presence of adults?
If the issue were whether a young person could have a glass of wine with dinner, this debate might be merely academic. In fact, many adolescents routinely drink to excess, at serious risk to themselves and others.
The Herald recently reported on a raid of a party involving Winthrop students. This wasn't just a few frat brothers and a keg. Cops found cases of alcohol, students so drunk they couldn't stand and some suffering from suspected alcohol poisoning. Ask campus police or Piedmont Medical Center personnel, and they will report that this wasn't a unique incident.
The alcohol industry implores customers to "drink responsibly" while spending millions promoting booze to young people. Popular brands of energy drinks are available with alcohol-added look-alikes. Adolescents, especially girls, are courted to buy " alcopops," fruit-flavored booze packaged to resemble soft drinks. Shelves of local ABC stores are lined with an array of vodka drinks in seductive, colorful bottles that imitate perfume containers.
Popular culture encourages children to dress, act -- and consume -- like adults. Parents shudder when they see their children emulating Brittney Spears or a gangsta rapper, but they feel helpless. They hope their teenagers are going through a phase, reassuring themselves that underage drinking is a rite of passage.
Since the halcyon days of Mr. Werrell's youth, however, our understanding of the effects of alcohol on the adolescent brain has improved. We know that the human brain is not fully developed until adulthood, and that when people delay drinking until after age 21, they tend to consume less and suffer fewer consequences. We also know:
• That 300,000 of today's college students will eventually die of alcohol-related causes;
• That 159,000 of today' s freshman will drop out of school next year because of booze or drugs;
• That 97,000 American students between 18 and 24 are victimized by alcohol-related sexual assaults or date rape annually; and
• That 2.1 million students in that group drive under the influence of alcohol each year.
Making it legal for kids to drink three years earlier would only make those statistics worse.