Opinion Columns & Blogs

August 30, 2008

DiGiorgio makes the right call

Winthrop University President Anthony DiGiorgio made the right call by declining to add his name to a petition, signed by 100 college presidents, calling for a discussion on lowering the drinking age.

Prior to 1974, some states permitted 18-year-olds to consume alcohol. That's the year Congress decided to deny states highway money unless they set the legal drinking age at 21. Supporters point out that the higher minimum age has achieved its principal goal, reducing highway carnage caused by soused young drivers.

Drunken driving by teens was among many factors that five years ago led some of us to take on underage drinking in this community. York County All On Board, as this effort is now called, is a countywide coalition of school districts, law agencies and other groups that help youth in crisis. Most of the heavy lifting falls to Keystone, the county substance abuse prevention agency.

AOB initiatives range from stepped-up enforcement during prom and graduation season, and convenience-store checks to educational forums and CoolFest, an annual health fair/festival for young people.

Many people maintain that society should lighten up on underage drinking. I'd recommend they chat with Frank Zebedis, Winthrop's chief of security, and ask him how many students have been rushed to Piedmont Medical Center because of alcohol poisoning.

Fortunately, Winthrop has been spared the alcohol-related tragedies that have hit other public institutions in the state, but I doubt there's a college administrator anywhere who doesn't wonder whether that siren in the night is in response to a student falling from a balcony or drowning in vomit.

So why are presidents from such prestigious institutions as Duke and Colgate universities lobbying for a fresh look at the minimum drinking age?

One reason is liability. If someone dies or is seriously injured because an underage student had been drinking, the institution often is the first party sued.

Beyond that, colleges are uncomfortable with the role of substitute parent. Some argue that if a person is mature enough to attend college, he or she should be capable of deciding whether to drink, and how much.

That's a variation of the argument that if someone is old enough to vote and serve in the military, he ought to be able to buy a beer.

I've always wondered whether advocates of that argument have ever examined DUI statistics from towns with a large military presence. During my time in the Army, I encountered too many drunks to feel right about making it easier for 18-year-old soldiers to imbibe.

When an elected county official defends his own alcohol offenses by implying he would have been fine if he had grown up in Italy, where kids as young as 5 are given wine, an appeal against raising the legal drinking age probably is doomed to fall on deaf ears.

Nevertheless, a growing body of evidence indicates that the later in life someone starts drinking, the less chance he'll face of becoming alcohol-dependent. It may be that the difference between 21 and 20 isn't huge, but an 18-year-old brain isn't fully developed. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause lasting damage.

Surveys show that many kids first experiment with alcohol at 12 or 13 and that by the time they are high school seniors, more than a fifth are binge-drinkers. That's five drinks or more on a single occasion!

Some adults view drinking as a teen rite of passage. They recall the halcyon days when they and their buddies would score a six pack and get loaded at the drive-in. Even when these "American Graffiti" memories aren't sanitized of fistfights, wrecked cars and puke-stained jeans, they bear little relevance to what our children and grandchildren face.

Kids today are under incredible pressure to "grow up," which translates into behavior that once was largely reserved to adults: Alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex.

The notion that at 18, most are able to handle all that mystifies me. I am baffled that intelligent, loving parents see drinking as a problem for other people's children. It's only when their kid or grandkid gets beaten up, infected with an STD or stretched out on a mortuary slab that it hits home.

Thankfully, Tony DiGiorgio gets it.

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