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States hike drinking age to wean teens from the bottle

old enough to vote and to fight for one's country does not necessarily mean old enough to handle alcohol wisely. That's what an increasing number of states are concluding as they vote to hike the legal drinking age.

Only a decade ago, most states lowered the age to 18 on the theory that new adult responsibilities at that age should also include the right the buy and consume alcoholic beverages.

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Yet over the last two years about a dozen staes have shifted gears to boost the minimum drinking age to 19, 20, or 21. New laws hiking the age to 19 in Georgia and Florida, for instance, take effect this fall. Similar legislation is pending in a number of other states.

Much of the reversal is due to a rising concern about the extent of the drinking problem in high schools -- teachers complaining that some students are drunk in class -- and growing evidence that the legal drinking age has a strong relationship to alcohol-related highway accidents.

Still, the issue remains politically sensitive.

"It's controversial and emotional -- I'd put it in the same category as motorcycle helmets," says Bernie Weber of the Office of Traffic Safety in Minnesota, a state that recently raised the drinking age to 19 and where there is some move to raise it to 21.

The liquor industry and some others argue that nothing less than individual rights is at issue. Admitting that alcohol-related traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people of every age. Arguing that anyone who really wants a drink will find a way to get one regardless of age and that hiking the age only forces more teens to cross state lines in search of more favorable drinking laws, these opponents insist that there are more effective ways -- from tighter rules and penalties to more effective education -- to meet the problems raised.

In Wisconsin, a beer-producing state long under pressure from its Midwestern neighbors to raise its 18-year-old drinking minimum, legislators this year rejected a bill to hike it to 19. They settled instead for such compromise as a time limit on purchasing carryout liquor from taverns and stiffer penalties for those misrepresenting their age.

In Michigan, a hike two years ago by a voter referendum to a 21-year-old legal drinking age has survived a constitutional challenge in the courts. But a bid to lower it back to 19 will be put before voters again this november.

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Though the Michigan governor and Department of Education favor an age drop, most assessments are that Michiganders are likely to stik with the 21-year-old age minimum. One reason is that data will be released next month on the first year's experience on the highways with the boost to 21. All indications are that it will show a distinct decline in alcohol-related highway fatalities for 18-20 year olds.

Two earlier studies on the effects of a drop in the drinking age in Michigan (in 1972 the 21 minimum fell to 18) and in Maine conducted by the University of Michigan's Dr. Richard Douglass prompted much of the recent national move to hike the drinking age.

The first study, analyzing 6 million traffic accidents in seven states (some of which had lowered the legal drinking age and some of which had not) turned up conclusive evidence of a hike in traffic mishaps among 18-to-20-year-olds when the age was lowered. Every effort, according to Dr. Douglass, was to attribute the change to other factors but evidence of the link was "compelling." A later study, focusing only on Michigan and for a longer period, turned up more of the same.

Dr. Douglass, a public health specialist, say he takes no philosophical position on the issue but "from a public health perspective it's irresponsible to pass laws that increase casualties." He has little patience of civil rights rathern than product safety and who insist that the evidence is not yet in.

Pointing out that boston University now is working on a study on the effects of the drinking age hike in Massachusetts, he says: "It's probably the best-researched area in traffic safety, and the evidence is highly conclusive."

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