Twenty-three years after raising the legal drinking age to 21, Vermont lawmakers are revisiting the issue, despite the threat of losing highway funding if they lower the age minimum.
Convinced that existing laws aren't working, state Sen. Hinda Miller has taken a first step toward rolling back the legal age by introducing a bill that would establish a task force to weigh the pros and cons and make a recommendation to the Legislature later this year.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others say it's folly to even consider, saying the higher age limit has saved thousands of lives since the 1984 enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The act required states to raise the age to 21 or lose federal transportation money.
Vermont voted to raise the age in 1985, and in the ensuing 20 years, alcohol-related traffic fatalities dropped by 40 percent, according to Vermont State Police.
For now, the debate is an academic one.
"Our laws aren't working. They're not preventing underage drinking. What they're doing is putting it outside the public eye," said Miller, D-Chittenden. "So you have a lot of kids binge drinking. They get sick, they get scared and they get into trouble and they can't call because they know it's illegal."
Miller, who says she isn't sure whether lowering the drinking age is the answer, believes it's an idea worth exploring.
She has taken her cue from John McCardell, a former Middlebury College president who now runs Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit that promotes public awareness of the dangers of excessive drinking by young adults and favors lowering the minimum age to 18.
He contends that the higher age hasn't kept young people from consuming alcohol, instead driving underage consumption underground, particularly on college campuses.
Miller's bill, McCardell says, is part of a larger effort to persuade Congress to grant waivers to exempt states from financial penalty if they lower the age.
"We're trying to see if there are states which would, if Congress should grant a waiver of that condition, come up with a plan that would not simply be lowering the age.
"We don't simply advocate the lower age, but believe mandatory alcohol education and licensing with very strict enforcement for violations of the state's alcohol laws might work. If Congress would grant a waiver, the states would be willing to try something, and at least then we could get some evidence and see whether things are better or worse," McCardell said Thursday.
Politically, it's a hard sell, in part because there are other public health hazards associated with excessive alcohol consumption, not just highway fatalities.
Then there's the financial hammer: Vermont stands to lose about $17 million a year if it were to flout the federal government and lower the drinking age.
Last year, a proposal in New Hampshire to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 for active duty military personnel was rejected.
"Is there any significant support in the U.S. Congress for changing the law? We don't see that," said Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Typically, when states flirt with the idea, they quickly abandon it for fear of losing the highway funding, he said.
"There really is no controversy in the science. It's not even close," he said.
The Vermont bill, which calls for a report to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2009, does not specify an age, only to have the five-member task force study the implications of lowering it from 21. It was approved Thursday in committee and next goes to the full Senate for a vote.
State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, who chairs the committee that approved the bill, said he would vote against lowering the age if he had to vote now.
But he said it's nonetheless worth looking into.
"I sense the Senate will buy into our rationale, that a law on the books for 20 years should have a look-see, to see if it's having its intended effect or should be modified," said Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans.
But critics are leery.
"I think it is irresponsible legislation, to be quite honest," said William Goggins, director of education and enforcement for the state Liquor Control Board.
"The facts speak for themselves. Once the drinking age was raised, the number of alcohol-related fatalities decreased. To me, saving lives is the grandest argument of them all," he said.