Opinion Extra

Strengthen our resolve, don't relax our laws

If you have picked up a paper, turned on the news or surfed the Internet in the past month, you've probably learned of the handful of S.C. judges who are pondering the constitutionality of our state's laws prohibiting 18- to 20-year-olds from possessing or consuming alcohol. While I leave it to the jurists and lawmakers to sort out whether the current wording of these statutes is appropriate, I will say that we must not abandon the intent of these laws. South Carolina must not make it easier for children under the age of 21 to play a dangerous game by experimenting with alcohol.

When South Carolina raised the legal age for beer and wine - first from 18 to 19 in 1984, then 19 to 20 in 1985 and finally to 21 in 1986 - it joined a preponderance of other states that already had set 21 as the minimum age for possession of alcoholic beverages. The final step also brought the Palmetto State in compliance with federal regulations that would strip us of much-needed federal highway funds if the legal age were to once again drop below 21. But the loss of such dollars - while no small matter in these economic times - is the least of the reasons we should keep alcohol out of the hands of those under 21.

More important is that alcohol is the drug most frequently used by teenagers - more, in fact, than all other illicit drugs combined. It is also the drug most likely to be associated with injury or death. In fact, in South Carolina, alcohol use is the major cause of loss of life for young people ages 15 to 24. It accounts for 45 percent of their fatalities, most of which result from alcohol-related car crashes. Can you imagine how these numbers might increase if our young people could possess and consume alcohol legally?

And what of recent research showing that the human brain does not fully mature until about age 25? It has been proven that one of the last areas of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for processing information, making judgments, controlling impulses and foreseeing consequences. Many of us have witnessed first-hand examples of high-risk alcohol use by individuals in their 30s, 40s, 50s and older - people who presumably have "mature" brains. Why, then, should we allow alcohol use by children who are nowhere near that physiological maturity threshold?

Research also shows that 15 percent of youth who begin using alcohol at age 18 will develop alcohol-related problems later in life. This number steadily decreases with every year that teens delay taking that first drink, so the higher the legal drinking age, the less the likelihood that our young people will become alcoholics or abusers of alcohol.

As teens hit the years where they are most at risk for alcohol use, parents and other adults must not be discouraged from monitoring their behavior and from talking about this important issue, not only with their teens but also with the parents of their children's friends. We must step in to help teens make good decisions that they're not ready to make on their own.

If our current laws restricting alcohol use have any weaknesses, we must act now to correct them. Our future demands it.