States put trend in reverse, decide to raise drinking age

State lawmakers from New England to Hawaii, many of whom a few years ago voted to lower the drinking age, are increasingly convinced that letting 18 -year-olds buy liquor is a mistake.

And over the protest of some segments of the teen-age population and some civil libertarians, legislatures are moving to get alcoholic beverages out of the hands of high school-aged youths.

Within the past three years, nine of the 27 states that had dropped their drinking ages from 21 to either 18 or 19 have passed laws pushing the minimum legal age for liquor purchases back up by one of three years.

Similar measures will be pushed in the coming weeks in at least 13 of the other states that responded to the "old enough to fight, old enough to vote -- old enough to drink" youth rallying cry of the Vietnam war era.

As of Jan. 8 at least 52 separate proposals for raising the drinking age were pending in Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York , Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, where the liquor age minimum was dropped from 21 to 18 in 1973, legislative dockets include 11 such measures, some of which would move the age up only to 19 or 20.

All four of Wisconsin's neighboring states -- Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan -- have outlawed liquor purchases to 18-year- olds; Illinois and Michigan moved the drinking age all the way back up to 21.

RAising the minimum legal drinking age to at least 19 is "definitely the trend," says Gary Nateman, chief counsel of the United States Brewers Association, whose Washington- based organization takes no position on such legislation but keeps close tabs on various states and programs which deal with liquor- related problems.

His group represents only the beer-producing industry. Similar hands-off positions have been taken by the nation's winemaking and liquor-distillery lobbying interests.

At the state level, however, some liquor dealer groups and individual package store and bar owners have taken positions, sometimes on opposite sides of the drinking-age question.

Contributing, perhaps substantially, to the current tide of legislative support for raising the liquor age has been increasing public sentiment against teen-age drinking.

A Gallup poll last October in 24 states where 18-year-olds are allowed to drink showed that 56 percent of adults queried favored raising the minimum liquor age to 20 or 21. Only 39 percent thought the age limit should not be raised. One percent wanted the drinking age further lowered. The remaining 4 percent had no opinion.

Critics of raising the drinking age contend that "it will accomplish little. Once teenagers have been able to buy alcoholic beverages they will continue to do so, irrespective of any law to the contrary."

They cite a recent Massachusetts study showing an increase in the number of teenagers charged with driving under the influence of alcohol six months after the age was raised in april 1979.

Bay State Gov. Edward J. King, who made passage of the legislation a prime campaign issue, insists that in the long run the new law will result in fewer liquor-connected traffic accidents. He claims that "a fair comparison cannot be made until the statute has been on the books for two or three years."

Proponents of anti-teen drinking measures maintain that favorable action is essential to reduce liquor-related traffic accidents, vandalism, and alcoholism among 18- to 20-year- olds and younger teen-agers who get liquor from older friends and schoolmates.

In Connecticut, where state Public Safety Commission Donald Long is one of those favoring raising the minimum drinking age, the number of liquor-related accidents involving 17-year-olds increased from 1.3 percent in 1977 to 3.62 percent in 1978.

A measure outlawing package-store liquor purchases by those under 20 was vetoed last year by Gov. Ella T. Grasso on constitutional grounds. The legislation would have left 18- year-olds free to buy liquor at restaurants and other establishments where it would be consumed on the premises.

Legislation boostin the minimum liquor age either one or two years has been signed into law within the past year in at least five other states -- from 18 to 20 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and from 18 to 19 in Montana, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

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