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Archive for Tuesday, October 12, 2004

No age rollback

October 12, 2004

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A campaign to lower the legal drinking age doesn't inspire confidence.

Somehow the signs they were carrying didn't make us more comfortable with the idea they were promoting.

A group of about 20 students marched on the Kansas University campus Saturday to express support for lowering the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.

"I Need Beer" said one of the signs. "If I Can Fight for My Land, Why Can't I Have a Drink in My Hand."

The slogans don't present the image of young people drinking responsibly, that is, at appropriate times and in reasonable amounts. I need beer? That sounds like someone who's headed for an addiction. And, although the other slogan may not have intended to, it conjures up a vision of a young soldier headed into battle with a weapon in one hand and a drink in the other. Not a pretty sight.

Some of the words are reminiscent of the 1960s, when young people were seeking the right to vote at 18. The campaign seeking the vote for young people, especially young men eligible to be drafted for service in the Vietnam War, however, took on a considerably more serious tone.

Not that the students leading the drive to lower the drinking age don't take the effort seriously. They have completed the paperwork to become a campus organization, known as the Political Activist Club, but the fact that only 20 students showed up for Saturday's march may be an indication of how much enthusiasm there is for the cause.

It certainly is an uphill battle. Before 1985, Kansans legally could drink cereal malt beverages (beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent), but the age was raised after the federal government threatened to withhold highway funding from states that didn't raise the drinking age to 21. State legislators aren't likely to go back on that decision any time soon.

State officials, however, would be kidding themselves if they think they are keeping alcohol out of the hands of teens. While beer taverns were the popular hangout for college students a generation ago, today's students gather more often at private homes and parties where no proof of age is needed. Raising the drinking age to 21 may, to some extent, have driven the drinking out of public venues, but it hasn't abolished it.

A recent cartoon on the Journal-World editorial page pointed out the irony of society's willingness to pass and enforce various smoking bans while largely accepting campus alcohol use as a natural rite of passage for young people. That attitude lives on in spite of the continued reports of deaths and injuries connected to under-age alcohol use.

It may be natural for teens and especially college students away from home for the first time to spread their wings and try new things, but the number of tragic incidents involving young people and alcohol seems to indicate that 18-year-olds may not yet be able to make wise decisions about alcohol use.

The answer to this problem may rest in stronger enforcement, a change in societal attitudes or other measures, but it seems pretty clear that legalizing the consumption of alcohol by 18-year-olds isn't a step in the right direction.

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