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Originally published Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Keep drinking age at 21

Lowering the drinking age to 18 is bad for young people, society

Special to The Times

LATELY, we've been seeing many press reports about organizations and individuals stating that the legal drinking age should be reduced from 21 to 18. One of those organizations is the Amethyst Initiative, composed of chancellors and presidents of colleges and universities, including Tacoma's Pacific Lutheran University.

As we debate the legal drinking age, let's keep some proven facts in mind.

Lowering the drinking age increases youth binge drinking and intoxication

Despite conventional wisdom, European countries with lower legal drinking ages have huge problems with youth binge drinking. For example, France is battling high binge-drinking rates among their youth. In an interview with Journal du Dimanche newspaper, the French Health Minister was recently quoted as saying, "Almost half of youths said they had had five glasses of alcohol on a single night on at least one occasion in the previous 30 days, which is the definition of binge drinking."

Additionally, a recent study on youth drinking in more than 30 European countries shows binge drinking and intoxication rates far greater in Europe than in our country. Published by the United States Department of Justice (www.udetc.org/documents/CompareDrinkRate.pdf), the report contradicts the belief that adolescent alcohol use leads to more responsible drinking.

On its Web site, the Amethyst Initiative states: Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

There are myriad research-based ways to prevent underage drinking including drug/alcohol-prevention curriculum in schools; parenting programs; social-norms campaigns that battle the misperceptions about underage drinking; and effective enforcement. The Centers for the Application of Prevention Technologies maintains information about evidenced-based prevention programs on its Web site: http://captus.samhsa.gov/national/resources/evidence_based.cfm.

The Amethyst Initiative states: Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

New brain science shows that alcohol negatively impacts the maturing brain and learning. The American Medical Association states that brain growth doesn't end until around age 20. "The brain goes through dynamic change during adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes." The Underage Drinking Research Initiative at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism cites one study showing a "single, moderate dose of alcohol can disrupt learning more powerfully in people in their early twenties, compared with those in their late twenties"

Alcohol use by those under 21 is also related to numerous health problems, including injuries and death results from car crashes, suicide, homicide, assaults, drowning and recreational mishaps.

If colleges really want to reduce binge drinking on their campuses, they need to do better than shirking responsibility by lowering the drinking age so their students won't be breaking the law. It takes hard work. Working toward decreasing youth alcohol use means battling messages youth have been receiving from adults for generations. It means battling the well-funded alcohol industry and its ability to attract young consumers. It means giving youth opportunities to feel welcome and appreciated in their communities. It means helping parents guide the choices their children make. With a society dedicated to creating a healthful and safe environment for its youth, underage drinking and binge drinking can be reduced by communitywide, comprehensive prevention efforts.

So, when the Amethyst Initiative asks legislators to invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol, let's start with the facts and with the knowledge that prevention works and is the right thing to do. Let's not give up because it takes hard work.

Inga Manskopf is the community coordinator for Northeast Seattle Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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