The recent release of the Amethyst Initiative's list of 100 college presidents calling for a debate on lowering the minimum drinking age has fueled arguments that on the surface seem rational. If one can fight for his country, why not be able to drink a beer? If we could make drinking alcohol less of a "rite of passage," maybe kids would drink less.

However, these arguments ignore research that the minimum drinking age of 21 has saved countless lives since being fully implemented in the late 1980s. Those in favor of lowering the minimum drinking age often do not take into account the complex issues surrounding alcohol abuse and addiction.

Locally, this debate provides organizations like the South Salt Lake Coalition for Drug Free Youth with a golden opportunity for education.

Without a doubt, underage drinking, particularly on college campuses, is pervasive and has major repercussions. While lowering the drinking age will remove the immediate enforcement issue and shift this responsibility to society at large, it will not alleviate the major costs and consequences associated with alcohol abuse.

Science confirms that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until the early to mid-20s. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), even a "single, moderate dose of alcohol can disrupt learning more powerfully in people in their early 20s, compared to those in their late 20s." The effects of repeated alcohol consumption during adolescence may also be long-lasting. Youths who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence as an adult than those who wait until age 21.

Studies also illustrate that the decline in the use of any drug, including alcohol, is directly related to its perception of harm or risk by the user. Lowering the drinking age sends the wrong message to America's youths and will further normalize behavior that clearly has the potential to be both dangerous and addictive. Other research from NIAAA indicates that countries and regions, including Europe, with a lower minimum drinking age exhibit higher rates of binge drinking and harmful drinking among adolescents.

The 21 drinking age is part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce traffic fatalities, delay the onset of initial drinking and make communities safer. Now is not the time to retreat; instead, prevention efforts need to be redoubled.

Advocates in support of the 21 drinking age are not prohibitionists. However, we know too well that alcohol abuse and addiction endangers lives, fractures families and damages communities. In an effort to strike a reasonable balance between our culture and these realities, community and public health advocates remain strongly in support of keeping the legal age at 21.


Rob Timmerman is the coordinator of the South Salt Lake Coalition for Drug Free Youth.