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CNN Live Sunday

Should the U.S. Drinking Age be Lowered?

Aired July 29, 2001 - 17:41   ET


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: Troubling new report issued now by Mothers Against Drunk Driving which says that every day, on average, more that 11,000 young people in the United States from ages 12 to 20 try alcohol for the first time. Almost 2/3 of junior and high school students who drink alcohol buy their own beverages, it says; that's nearly 7 million young people. And each year junior and senior high school students drink an estimated 35 percent of all wine coolers that are sold, and more than 1 million cans of beer.

It's that time of year when many American teens are thinking of issues like this, heading off to college, receiving letters from their schools explaining what the drinking laws are in the state where they'll be attending school. They will face many pressures there, including the temptation to drink alcohol.

The legal drinking age is the source of a lot of debate in the United States. Should it stay 21, or be lowered? We're going to continue that debate here now. We're joined now by Alex Koroknay Palicz in Washington, D.C., who is president of the National Youth Rights Organization -- Association, sorry. And in Dallas, Mary Eilts, who is a youth member with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the group that just issued that report.

Alex, you first, if we may. You pointed out, when we were talking with you earlier, that there are few nations that have a drinking age as high as 21, as is true in the U.S.

ALEX KOROKNAY PALICZ, NATIONAL YOUTH RIGHTS ASSOCIATION: Yes, there's actually only four nations: There's Malaysia, South Korea, Ukraine and the United States have a drinking age as high as 21. Every single other country in the world has a drinking age of 18 or below, and most of those aren't even enforced as strictly as they are in the United States.

FRAZIER: Mary, what do you make of the fact that there is a national age of 21 now? There's no move, actually -- there's only a small move to try to reduce the age. And what would your feelings be about that?

MARY EILTS, YOUTH MEMBER, MADD: Well, I feel extremely safe having the age being 21, with so many people out there learning how to drink and the new graduated driver's license, putting it any younger would be putting alcohol in the hands of new drivers, and people who are just too young to take on that responsibility. FRAZIER: Alex?

PALICZ: Well, it's not really a matter of the age, because everybody says that, you know, if you lower the age young then young people won't be able to handle alcohol responsibly. And it's been proven time and time again that it has nothing to do with a person's age, they've experience -- the inexperience in alcohol is the same for whatever age they are. If you start drinking at 21, you're going to have problems, because you're new at it. If you start drinking at 18, you're going to have problems because you're new at it.

Raising the driving -- drinking age, all it does is transfer people from 18 to 20 to 21 and over.

FRAZIER: I know these aren't just your opinions in either case that you're expressing here. You both back up your claims with an awful lot of science. You cite a lot of studies.

Alex, you mentioned the tolerance issue; the idea of working in and trying to avoid abusive drinking. Still, it's clear that there's an awful lot of binge drinking on campuses.

PALICZ: And that's actually the fault of the driving -- the drinking age. Instead of in European countries, where you teach moderation and responsible drinking at a very early age, in this country it's secret. It's kind of a -- you know, it's a demonized thing. So you do it in your basement; you do it in backdoor keg parties.

You don't learn responsible drinking with your parents. That's what raising the drinking age has done, is turned responsible drinking into dangerous drinking.

FRAZIER: What about the point that Mary raises -- and Mary, let me ask you to elaborate on this, about the body's inability or unreadiness for alcohol prior to maturing up to the age of 21.

EILTS: Exactly. Your brain is still developing up until the age of 21. And research shows that, under the age 21, drinking can cause irreversible brain damage. And the younger you start drinking, the more likely you're leading to becoming an alcoholic at an earlier age.

FRAZIER: It does seem to be a reasonable point of view, though, that, you know, a moderate approach, and a supervised approach to drinking would help avoid the kind of abusive drinking, Mary, that we were just discussing, on campus, with Alex.

EILTS: But nonetheless you're still going to have binge drinking. And especially at such a young age, when supervision isn't readily at hand, you're going to go off to college, you're going to be introduced to new other things. There are other responsibilities you need to take care of first before you need to consider having a drink.

FRAZIER: Alex, in the studies that you cited in your position paper, which is very thoughtful, here. One of the things I was impressed with was the sort of international look you took. And you mentioned Europe, where a lot of people commonly cite the sort of familial and culture antecedents to drinking.

PALICZ: Yes. It's a very easy point to make. Anybody who has been overseas; anybody who's been to, you know, Italy or England or Greece or something, they've seen these countries, they've seen how they operate. And they see that people sometimes even as young as 12 or 10, you know, have a glass of wine with the parents, or sit down and have some alcohol.

And that's a safer way to do it. It teaches responsibility and moderation. You know, if you keep the drinking age where it is and you enforce it as strictly as you do, it's just going to lead to dangerous results, as we see here, with alcoholism, you know, being much higher than it is in Europe and drunk driving deaths being much higher than they are in Europe.

FRAZIER: Before we go back to Mary, Alex, let me ask what you think of this sort of drinking permit -- the sort of graduated steps into drinking that's being proposed in some states?

PALICZ: Well, I think graduation is a great idea for drinking. You know, they've worked with driving as well. You know, you start them off small and you work your way up.

And with licenses and what not, it's a good way to get around the federal law that has -- penalizes states if they don't have a 21 age. And I think if you introduce people at an earlier age and at a gradual rate it will definitely increase responsible drinking rather than harmful drinking.

FRAZIER: All right Mary, I'd like to hear your opinion to that. But before we do that, we're going to extend this conversation a little bit. And in order to do that, we have to break and put a commercial in the middle of it.

So hold your thoughts if you would, please, both of you; and we'll take a break and come right back.


FRAZIER: We're back, and we're continuing our conversation with Mary Eilts and Alex Koroknay Palicz about teenage, or underage drinking, or changing the laws, now, which stand at 21 in every state of the nation.

And Mary, we had been discussing a moment ago this idea of a permit. You think there's something fishy about that.

EILTS: Yes, I have to say I do because, you know, with graduated driver's license, you're learning to drive a car. And everybody drives a car basically the same way. There are certain ways to do that.

But with drinking there are different sizes and shapes and weights of every citizen in America. We can't tell how much alcohol one person can take versus another. So it's just putting a dangerous situation in the hands of too many young people by allowing that to happen.

FRAZIER: You have said it's time to change teen culture to make it more intolerant of abusive behavior. That sounds like a tall order.

EILTS: Well, you know, speaking back -- as we were talking about Europe earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice says that they polled 10th graders in Europe versus 10th graders in America and it showed that Europe youth does drink more and does binge drink more than their American counterparts. So having the drinking age stay at 21, I think, is the safest bet that America has.

FRAZIER: Alex, how does that sound to you?

PALICZ: Well, I've actually heard about that study. And it's been, you know, sponsored by a lot of anti-alcohol groups, so the results of that are rather questionable.

But she also spoke about changing culture of youth and changing, you know, their outlook of teens on abuse. That's certainly what we need to do, is we need to do education. We need to educate people about alcohol, educate people on the harms of alcohol. You know, if somebody has different weights or capacities for alcohol, we teach them that because they're going to have to find out sometime, someday, whether they're over 21 or over 18 they're going to find out how they react to alcohol.

So we need to teach them. We need to educate them so they can use it in a responsible manner.

FRAZIER: Well, we're going to let that be the last word, because even with that extension we gave this conversation we are now out of time. But let me thank you both. And it's impressive to see two such articulate young people speaking on a complicated issue.

Mary, Alex, thank you.

EILTS: Thank you.

PALICZ: Thank you.