Drinking debate drives on after two decades

Twenty years ago, Wisconsin drafted legislation to hoist its minimum legal drinking age from 19 to 21. Among the last states to do so, it limped toward teen sobriety against strident opposition from some and encouragement from others.

Today, whether the under-21 set should remain thirsty is a debate that still simmers on. Perhaps the best example of this evergreen debate is a bill that is currently being kicked around in the state legislature that would allow 19-year-old enlistees to drink.

The decision to set a minimum drinking age of 21 was almost entirely a result of out-of-state pressure. In 1984, President Reagan, citing safety concerns, enacted legislation that required states to adopt 21 as the drinking age. The same legislation punished non-compliance by withholding millions in federal highway money.

In 1985, many states were elevating their minimum legal drinking ages to 21. Wisconsin, however, planted its feet in opposition. Fueled by almost unanimous opposition from both the legislature and the governor, Wisconsin resisted the mandate until a special session finally agreed to the age hike so as not to lose $7 million in federal highway money the next time a budget was prepared. The higher drinking age went into effect in 1986.

Now, after two decades, almost everyone agrees that the move to an older drinking age made sense, safety-wise.

"If it saved lives, then I guess it was a good thing," said Tavern League of Wisconsin CEO Pete Madland. The Tavern League of Wisconsin is an interest group representing Wisconsin's bars and taverns. It opposed raising the drinking age.

"Statistics from all around the country, including Wisconsin, showed that accidents involving alcohol declined" with the implementation of a 21-year-old drinking age, said Lindsay Desormier, victims' assistance coordinator with the Wisconsin chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation corroborate Desormier's remarks. Since 1986, there have been fewer alcohol-related car accidents involving young people, according to Dennis Hughes, the department's chief of safety policy analysis.

As soon as the higher drinking age took effect, Hughes' department began keeping tabs on the rates of car accidents involving alcohol and young people.

"The early indications were that there was a decline in crashes," Hughes said. "As we expected, there were fewer kids drinking and getting into crashes."

His department did a more "definitive" study in 1994 and found that the higher drinking age did have a "positive safety benefit."

"The numbers were indisputable then, as they are now," he said.

Even so, the issue is far from laid to rest. A perennial counter from those opposing the 21-year-old limit is that it forces younger people to engage in risky drinking habits, like drinking at a party and driving home intoxicated, instead of drinking publicly in a socially-accepted setting.

"We feel now as we felt then," Madlandsaid. "We think that 18- to 19-year-olds are better drinking in a supervised environment than in a cornfield or rock quarry or whatever."

Claims like Madland's, however, are brushed aside by the likes of Linda Janick, Student Against Destructive Driving coordinator for Thomas More High School.

"Some will do it no matter what," she said, "but if they're 18, they'll think twice about it."

Desormier, the MADD representative, agrees.

"I'm sure that there are teenagers out there who will find alcohol before 21," she said. "A lot of how you treat it depends on your environment and your parents."

Assembly Bill 141 stands as proof that the issue hasn't died out. In essence, it would allow 19-year-old enlistees to drink. Who has fallen on the side of supporting AB 141 and who has opposed it is perhaps not surprising.

"We have kids fighting and they can't come home and have a beer? That's ludicrous," Madland said. "We have kids firing bazookas and operating multimillion-dollar equipment and they can't have a drink? That doesn't add up."

"That's a tough call," said Janick, whose two sons used to be in the Army, "But 21 is 21. If it's 21, then that's the way it is. I don't think anyone younger than that is mentally able to drink. I don't think they're capable of handling it."

Regardless of its fate, AB 141 is a bellwether of the twists and turns the issue is sure to take in Wisconsin, if nowhere else.

As the Department of Transportation's Hughes observes: "Wisconsin is the only state where the issue really comes up."

This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on August 29, 2005.