Real reasons children drink

From Mary P. Easley, North Carolina's First Lady:

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 is one the most studied public health laws in our history and it saves lives every year. That is why it is disappointing that some college presidents and chancellors support the Amethyst Initiative, an effort to lower the drinking age to 18. These men and women are leaders in our academic communities.

Their decisions should be guided by research, science and common sense. The Amethyst Initiative lacks supporting evidence from any of these categories.

Many of the college leaders who support the Amethyst Initiative admit that lowering the legal drinking age is not the solution to teen drinking. But they argue that debating this policy change will help them start a dialogue.

We do not need to change an effective law and risk the health of our youth and our communities to start this discussion. We do need to talk about the real reasons our children drink and how we can use science- and research-based prevention strategies to stop them.

Children today are exposed to an endless stream of mixed messages and conflicting behaviors from media, their peers, adults and opinion leaders. In this environment, they believe it is acceptable to drink alcohol and break the law. With so many outside factors influencing their choices and behavior, holding youth solely responsible for underage drinking is like holding fish responsible for dying in a polluted river.

In this toxic culture, underage drinking begins before college. Many youth take their first drink of alcohol in middle school. That is why North Carolina developed Media Ready, a media literacy substance abuse prevention program. We have offered training in the curriculum to Safe and Drug Free School coordinators in every school district in the state so they can help middle school students become critical thinkers whose decisions and behavior cannot be manipulated by alcohol advertising.

Education programs are only a partial answer to the problem. Other crucial solutions include training and compliance checks for alcohol retailers; zero tolerance and other policies to limit alcohol accessibility to minors; and social host, drinking and driving and the legal drinking age laws. These are all science- and research-based prevention strategies that, when combined, effectively address the problem of underage drinking on every level. Using this multi-faceted approach that enlists law enforcement, educators, parents, court officials, government leaders, community members and youth is the only way to change a culture so dangerously accepting of teen alcohol use.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimates that the alcohol industry already makes $23 billion a year from consumers younger than 21. So who would really benefit from a drinking age that is lowered to 18?

President Erskine Bowles of the University of North Carolina System has stated his continued support of a minimum legal drinking age of 21. This is an example of leadership worth following for other college and university presidents.

You too can help send a clear and consistent message that underage alcohol use will not be tolerated. Visit www.why21.org to e-mail college presidents and other Amethyst Initiative supporters and tell them lowering the drinking age would be a dangerous and irresponsible move.