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Teen drinking rampant despite age limit

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WASHINGTON — A 15-year-old Ohio boy speaks of friends jailed for drinking and driving. A 17-year-old from Tennessee talks of classmates who use the school bathroom to get an early start on drinking. And a 20-year-old college student from Maryland says a priority her freshman year was to track down a fake ID.

Teen drinking remains widespread in this country despite an intensive campaign to reduce it over the past two decades. Two thirds of Americans — both teens and adults — favor the legal drinking age of 21, according to an Associated Press poll conducted by ICR of Media, Pa.

After dropping significantly in the 1980s, when the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in all 50 states, the amount of teen drinking has settled in at a rate many consider too high and a continuing health hazard.

School officials and drug abuse experts are now looking for ways to regain lost momentum in their efforts to curb a problem associated with 2,273 traffic fatalities among those ages 15 to 20 in 1999, the most recent statistics available.

Fake IDs and underage drinking have been in the news since the 19-year-old twin daughters of President Bush, Jenna and Barbara, had a brush with the law. The sisters were cited by police after their visit May 29 to a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas. Two weeks earlier, Jenna Bush had pleaded no contest to underage drinking and was ordered to receive alcohol counseling and perform community service.

The average age that teens start drinking dropped from about 18 in the mid 1960s to about 16 in the late 1990s, research suggests. Those who start drinking younger are more likely to become alcohol dependent.

"We need to re-evaluate what we're doing and do something different now," said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Options include tougher enforcement, community education and promotions to tell students drinking is less rampant than they might think.

In a 1999 survey, about half of all high school students had consumed alcohol in the past month. Drinking levels grow higher for older teens.

The legal drinking age had reached 21 nationwide by 1988 — spurred by a 1984 federal law that tied federal highway dollars to compliance by the states.

Research suggests the amount of teen drinking dropped by about 13 percent after states raised the drinking age. The number of alcohol-related traffic deaths of those between 15 and 20 dropped by almost half in the decade after the drinking age was changed, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

"It's clear that the move in the age to 21 is the most successful effort that we've had in the last couple of decades to reduce drinking and alcohol," said University of Minnesota researcher Alexander Wagenaar. Dwight Heath, an anthropologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., counters that Europeans are right to expose people to drinking at a younger age and demystify alcohol.

The drinking age in the United States ranged from 18 to 21 in the years after Prohibition ended in 1933. Some states had lowered the drinking age to 18 by the early 1970s, but that trend was soon reversed with a major goal of reducing traffic fatalities.

David Ponte, a 15-year-old from Cleveland, supports the higher drinking age after having several friends jailed for drinking and driving.

While two-thirds of Americans supported the 21-year-old legal drinking age, even more in the AP poll wanted tougher enforcement of the laws. The survey of 1,008 adults and 514 teens was taken June 6-10. It had error margins of plus or minus 3 percentage points for adults and 4 percentage points for teens.

Both students and school officials say teen drinking remains very popular in high school.

"Most of them have easy access to alcohol in their homes, their friends' homes and fake IDs," said Ted Feinberg, a veteran school psychologist.

For Mara Conheim, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, "freshman year was all about finding a fake ID." Another Maryland student, 21-year-old Brent Robbins, said older students often lend IDs to younger classmates. Gary Paleva, director of the college's office of judicial programs, says the college does all it can to prohibit drinking, but "sometimes parents have lost control before students get here."

Both teachers and counselors question the effects of their efforts.

"There are all kinds of signs up around our school. We have little workshops and seminars," said Detroit high school teacher Cassandra Jerrido. "But drinking is caused more by peer pressure. I don't see any of our efforts working."