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The numerical difference between an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old is just three years. Yet, the ages remain a world apart primarily because a 21 year old can legally drink, and an 18-year-old cannot.
The debate regarding the legal drinking age in the United States recently resurfaced, and on Jan. 15, discussion of the topic found a venue in Cheshire.
The Cheshire Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking sponsored the event and four panelists shared differing opinions regarding the magic number for the legal drinking age. The panelists ranged in age and expertise, from Sabrina S., a 17-year-old Cheshire High School student to Cheshire police officer Mark Ecke. Filling out the panel were Saint Joseph College Dean of Students Dr. Cheryl Barnard and 19-year-old college student Jason Lydell. The forum was informal, and with about a dozen members of the public attending, the panelists had plenty of questions and comments to which to respond.
Sabrina S. said she initially was leaning towards being in favor of lowering the drinking age, but “the more I learned, I changed my mind.”
At parties, I don’t need to drink to have fun, but some other kids want to drink,” she said. “Lowering the drinking age would say it’s okay to get drunk.”
Lydell, gave a succinct statement on his belief of why the drinking age should be lowered. He explained that if he could be drafted and go to war to fight terrorism, he should be able to legally drink.
“If I can be trained to kill, and I’m viewed as mature enough to kill, then I think I should be old enough to go to a pub and have a drink,” Lydell said.
Jennifer DeWitt, executive director of the Central Naugatuck Valley Regional Action Council, moderated the forum, stating that from what she has observed, it really comes down to personal choices or family beliefs.
“I have spent a lot of time with substance abusers and children of substance abusers,” DeWitt said. “I have heard many sides of the debate.”
The drinking age has fluctuated in this country’s history. When prohibition ended in the early 1930s, almost every state set the legal drinking age at 21. Between 1970 to 1975, 29 states began lowering the legal drinking age to 18, 19, or 20 years old, to have it coincide with other age-restricted activities, like voting. During that time, studies indicated the lower drinking age was resulting in more motor vehicle accidents and deaths. As a result, some states increased the drinking age back to 21, and in 1984, the federal government enacted the Uniform Drinking Age Act, which forced states to have a legal drinking age of 21 or risk losing federal transportation funding.
More recently, a group of 120 college and university presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative, which states that it’s time to rethink the legal drinking age.
“I don’t know if I can tell you what the right age is,” Barnard said, “but I can tell you what I’ve seen.”
Barnard explained that in her 20-year career in higher education, she has seen student deaths that were alcohol related. She added that she has personally stopped parents from dropping off beer or liquor to their underage children, and she said she believed it was the “responsibility of parents to discuss the implications with your child if they choose to drink.”
“You can’t tell your kids not to drink, then turn around and tell them to call you if they are drunk and need a ride home, and there will be no consequences,” Barnard said. “If you haven’t talked to your kids about drinking, you should.”
Mark Ecke, a Cheshire police officer and DARE teacher, was adamant in his belief that the drinking age should remain at 21. He said there is an underage drinking problem and the age of first sip is already 13 years old, and he wondered if the first sip would occur at an even younger age.
“I am very much in favor of keeping the drinking age at 21,” Ecke said. “If we lower the age, when does that first sip happen?”
An audience member, who said she grew up in Montreal, explained that with the legal drinking age of 18, she witnessed 13- and 14-year-olds in bars. She said the police would remove the younger groups from the bars, but left 16- and 17-year-olds alone. She was concerned that lowering the drinking age or condoning it would increase the possibility for alcohol addiction later in life.
After the forum ended, a woman named Ann said the discussion was good because “there wasn’t one side of an issue with people trying to convince me on their stance.” Ann said that the drinking age was not the real concern; rather the issue is about parents being able to teach their children about making responsible decisions.
“I wish more people were here. The people that were here were the concerned and interested parents,” Ann said. “That’s not the audience that needs to be educated.”
For more information on the Coalition, visit the Web at www.cheshirecsud.org.