Imagine if the president of a Utah college signed a petition asking lawmakers to lower the legal age for buying cigarettes.

And imagine they did so because they wanted to reduce teenage smoking.

Sounds silly and misdirected, doesn't it? You can imagine the public reaction.

So where is the reaction now that Westminster College President Michael Bassis signed the Amethyst Initiative petition asking state lawmakers to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, and that they do so in order to put an end to teenage binge drinking?

OK, before you jump on your computer keys and start sending off nasty e-mails, I understand the basic differences between smoking and drinking. You cannot smoke responsibly, whereas people who drink in moderation and stay off the roads when impaired may be said to be drinking responsibly. Smoking, in any degree, causes physical harm.

But there are sound reasons why government should prohibit young adults from drinking.

Two years ago, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and various private organizations held town hall meetings across Utah to discuss new evidence showing how anyone under 20, and even many people well into their 20s, suffer far greater damage from alcohol consumption than do older adults. Specifically, they suffer irreparable harm to parts of the brain that are developing the ability to make sound judgments, decide important matters or control destructive impulses. Alcohol also can harm a young person's ability to learn and remember.

Put in this context, it no longer seems so contradictory for government to allow people to vote or serve in the military at age 18 but to prohibit them from drinking until 21.

Bassis and the other college leaders (he was one of 115 presidents and chancellors nationwide, as of Wednesday, who signed the petition, but the only one from Utah) have made it clear that they, too, are concerned about alcohol consumption among their students. I believe they are sincere, but that brings us to the heart of the matter, which is their belief, stated on the Amethyst Initiative Web site, that the 21-year-old age limit "is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses."

The theory seems to be that young college students are more prone to gorge themselves on alcohol because they cannot legally purchase it. If it's illegal, it's more enticing.

But consider that, according to studies published last year, the percentage of college students in Utah who binge drink was at 5.2 percent, as compared with 67.9 percent nationally. That's a Grand Canyon gulf. Clearly, factors other than the legal age limit affect how young people behave. Religion obviously plays a large role, but so do education and culture.

Which brings us back to tobacco. No one is suggesting that the way to end underage smoking is to make it legal. Rather, several studies suggest a link between tax increases on cigarettes and a reduction in young smokers. In addition, smoking has become socially unacceptable in many contexts, due to a variety of factors, including restrictions on advertising.

The answer to binge drinking, then, is not to make alcohol legally available to people who have yet to develop the judgment skills to act responsibly. It is not to give official sanction to something that can permanently damage developing minds. It is to attack the industry itself, its advertising and its reach. A petition by college leaders earlier this month to get the NCAA to ban beer commercials from college sports was a much better approach.

The college presidents do make one valid point. They believe Congress has strangled debate on the drinking age by tying a 21-year age limit to highway funds. Any state that lowers its limit stands to lose 10 percent of its money.

By all means, open up the debate. Any clear-eyed examination of alcohol and its effects will show how absurd it would be for government to approve something that would permanently harm young minds.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]