Surgeon General Decries Drinking Law as 'Myth'

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WASHINGTON The 1984 federal law that required all states to raise the minimum age for the purchase and public possession of alcohol to 21 is "largely a myth," Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello said last week.

Despite the fact that all 50 states complied under penalty of losing federal highway funds, state drinking laws are "riddled with loopholes, laxity, and lip service," Dr. Novello said at the release here of a new federal study on youths and drinking laws.

The study by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general found that:
. State laws contain loopholes that permit underage drinking, including the legality of minors in licensed drinking establishments and the employment by vendors of minors who may sell to other minors.
. State and local agencies have difficulty enforcing youth alcohol laws.
. Nominal penalties against vendors and minors limit the effectiveness of enforcement.
. States have difficulty preventing the use of false identification.

Dr. Novello also criticized the 1984 law itself for containing exemptions for possession of alcohol that states have not disallowed. The exemptions include possession in a private establishment, when accompanied by a spouse or a legal guardian over 21, or in the course of lawful employment. The Surgeon General urged states to disallow such exemptions.

Another study by the agency's Inspector General released earlier this year estimated that 8 million junior- and senior-high-school students, or about 40 percent, drink weekly.

That study also found that about two-thirds of the students who drink buy their own alcoholic beverages, either by using fake identification cards or by frequenting stores known to sell to underage drinkers. (See Education Week, June 19, 1991.)

Enforcement Strategies

The new report details some of the more creative methods states have developed to enforce alcohol laws and penalize offenders.

Twenty-seven states, for example, delay, suspend, or revoke a teenager's driver's license for an alcohol-related violation. The suspension vanes from several days to several years.

Indeed, the report says, "Driver's license suspension may be the only penalty that deters youth."

Other methods include community-service and counseling programs, decoy or "sting' operations that limit vendors from selling to minors, and civil-liability or "dram shop" laws that allow lawsuits against people who provide alcohol to minors.

The study also concludes that public attitudes and deficiencies in "comprehensive, early alcohol education in schools" inhibit enforcement of drinking laws.

The report says that 48 of the 51 state enforcement officials interviewed this summer for the study believe that increasing alcohol education in the schools would decrease students' alcohol use.

The state officials recommend that alcohol education be started as early as kindergarten and advised schools to teach youngsters about the laws and penalties associated with underage drinking as well as about the health consequences.

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 9

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as Surgeon General Decries Drinking Law as 'Myth'
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