The legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to about 18 or 19, and young people should be allowed to drink in the presence of adults in such settings as restaurants, taverns and pubs and at official school and university functions.

Allowing young people to consume alcohol in such controlled environments would enable them to learn mature and sensible drinking behaviors.The flouting of current drinking-age laws is readily apparent among university students. Those under age 21 are more likely to be heavy, or "binge," drinkers - consuming over five drinks at one sitting at least once a week; 22 percent of students under age 21 classify themselves as heavy drinkers, compared with 18 percent of students over age 21.

Research has documented a decrease in problems associated with drinking and driving that has paralleled a decrease in per-capita consumption of alcohol. However, these declines started in 1980, before Congress passed the law that required states that had not already done so to raise the drinking age to 21 if they wanted to continue receiving federal highway funds. The decrease in drinking and driving problems is the result of many factors, including education programs concerning drunken driving, designated-driver programs, increased seat belt and air bag usage, safer automobiles and lower speed limits.

While drunken driving problems have declined over the past two decades, there has been an increase in other problems related to heavy and irresponsible drinking among college-age youth. These include vomiting after drinking, missing classes, getting lower grades and getting into fights.

Our current approach to controlling underage drinking is not working, and we need to try alternatives based on the experiences of other cultures that do not have these problems.

Ethnic groups that have few drinking-related problems tend to share some common characteristics: They see alcohol as neither a poison nor a magic potion; there is little or no social pressure to drink; irresponsible behavior is never tolerated; young people learn from their parents and other adults how to handle alcohol in a responsible manner; there is a societal consensus on what constitutes responsible drinking.

Because the laws making 21 the legal drinking age are not working, and, in fact, are counterproductive, it behooves us as a nation to change our current policy and instead concentrate on teaching responsible drinking techniques for those who choose to consume alcoholic beverages.