MONTPELIER, Vt. – More than two decades after the country established a uniform drinking age of 21, a nascent movement is afoot to allow 18- to 20-year-olds to legally buy alcohol under some circumstances.
Proponents say the higher age hasn't kept young people from consuming alcohol and has instead driven underage consumption underground, particularly on college campuses.
"Our laws aren't working. They're not preventing underage drinking. What they're doing is putting it outside the public eye," Vermont state Sen. Hinda Miller said. "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."
On Thursday, a committee of the Vermont Senate approved Miller's bill to have a task force weigh the pros and cons of rolling back the drinking age and make a recommendation to the Legislature early next year.
Organizations and lawmakers in other states are toying with similar ideas.
In South Dakota, Flandreau lawyer N. Bob Pesall has drafted an initiative petition to allow 19- and 20-year-olds to legally buy beer no stronger than 3.2 percent alcohol.
In Missouri, a group is using the Internet social networking sites Facebook and Meetup to try to collect more than 100,000 signatures to get a measure on the ballot to lower the drinking age to 18.
In South Carolina and Wisconsin, lawmakers have proposed allowing active duty military personnel younger than 21 to buy alcohol. A similar proposal was rejected last year in New Hampshire.
And last year, former Middlebury College president John McCardell started Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit that favors allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to legally buy booze once they've completed an alcohol education program.
"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," McCardell said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others call this 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. South Dakota was the last state to comply, in 1988.
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.
"Is there any significant support in the U.S. Congress for changing the law? We don't see that," said Chuck Hurley, CEO of MADD.
Typically, when states flirt with the idea, they quickly abandon it for fear of losing the highway funding, he said.
Vermont stands to lose about $17 million a year if it were to flout the federal government and lower the drinking age.
McCardell said an effort is under way to persuade Congress to grant waivers exempting states from financial penalty if they lower the age.
"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," he 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.
But proponents of a younger drinking age say alcohol-related highway fatalities were dropping before the legal drinking age was lowered, and argue underground drinking presents its own risks.
In 2006, 28.3 percent of youngsters aged 12 to 20 said they'd had a drink in the past month and 19 percent were defined as binge drinkers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The survey defined a binge drinker as someone who, in the past month, had drunk five or more alcoholic beverages within several hours.
Miller, a Democrat, says she isn't sure that lowering the drinking age is the answer, but calls the idea worth exploring.
Her bill, which calls for a report to the Legislature by Jan. 15, does not propose a specific drinking age, only sets up a five-member task force to study the implications of lowering the age from 21. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, chairman of the committee that approved the bill, said he would vote against lowering the age if he had to decide 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, a Republican.
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," he said. "Once the drinking age was raised, the number of alcohol-related fatalities decreased. To me, saving lives is the grandest argument of them all."