James Werrell

Don't restrict drinking privilege to military

State Rep. Fletcher Smith has proposed legislation that would make it legal for anyone in the military younger than 21 to have a drink at a bar or buy a six pack at a quick stop. Here's a better idea: Lower the drinking age to 18 for everyone.

Fletcher's bill reflects the common contention that, if you're old enough to fight, you're old enough to drink. Under the bill, service members would simply have to show their military ID cards when buying drinks.

The bill doesn't stand much of a chance. It is certain to be opposed by highway safety advocates and various anti-alcohol groups. And, if the bill were to become law, South Carolina could lose up to 10 percent of its federal highway funds.

The idea of setting up a two-tiered drinking law also poses its own problems. Law enforcement agencies, bartenders and liquor store clerks would have a whole new category of fake IDs to contend with.

It also would be patently unfair to single out service members for this privilege. Why not allow young police officers, firefighters, rescue squad workers or just about anyone else in a risky line of work to buy and consume alcohol? Why not allow young married couples responsible enough to have jobs, children and mortgages to drink a beer when they feel like it?

But even if it may be unfair to extend this privilege to service members only, the argument always has been compelling. If we ask 18-year-olds to learn to operate deadly weapons, to endure intense stress and terrible living conditions, and to fight, kill and die for their country, they should be permitted to drink legally.

In fact, the military itself already has made some exceptions for its underage members. Soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines often are allowed to drink on base at functions approved by their commanders.

It also is likely that underage service members, like their civilian counterparts, can get alcohol nearly any time they want it. That, in fact, is the crux of the issue: Despite the law, thousands of underage Americans on military installations, on college campuses, at crowded bars and in homes across the nation are consuming alcohol every weekend.

Advocates of the 21-year-old age limit say this is primarily the result of a warped culture and inadequate law enforcement. They say we need to send a stronger message to the teens about the dangers of drinking. And we need to crack down on minors who buy alcohol and adults who provide it to them.

But those methods have been tried and found wanting. The 21-year-old drinking age remains one of the most commonly flouted laws in the nation. And by barring 18- to 20-year-olds from drinking openly, the law encourages them to drink secretly -- in dorm rooms, in secluded fields or at unsupervised house parties where binge drinking and other reckless behavior is common.

This notion that 21 is the ideal age to allow people to start drinking is far from universal. In Mexico and Canada, our northern and southern neighbors, the drinking age is 18. In much of the rest of the world, the drinking age is 18 or younger. In fact, according to a report last year in Parade magazine, only three other countries -- Mongolia, Palau and Indonesia -- restrict purchasing drinks to those 21 or older.

Should we continue to discourage irresponsible drinking habits among young people and seek ways to safeguard them? Absolutely. Should we continue to strictly enforce drunken driving laws? Certainly we should, but drunken driving is wrong no matter what age the driver is.

But unrealistic prohibition doesn't work. And a routinely ignored law only invites contempt for the law.

Alcohol always is a potentially dangerous substance. But the most significant hazard many 18- to 20-years-olds will face on an average Saturday night is an encounter with the police -- and all the inconvenience and expense that can entail.

No, we shouldn't bar service members from having a drink. But why shouldn't we allow all 18-year-olds, who can sign a contract to buy a car, get married without their parents' permission and vote for president, legally drink an alcoholic beverage?

Requiring them to wait until they are 21 makes no sense, but, as usual, wishful thinking is almost certain to prevail over common sense regarding this issue. Nice thought, anyway, Rep. Smith.