May 26, 2001

While in the nation's capital for its national board meeting and for a U.S. Capitol reception honoring Members of Congress, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) revealed that a new report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) shows that underage drinking -- the number one youth drug problem -- is costing the nation $52 Billion annually, yet the Congress appropriated only $71 million to combat the problem this year.

In response to the findings of the GAO report ("Underage Drinking: Information on Federal Funds Targeted at Prevention"), MADD called on the Congress to enact pending legislation that would fund a national media campaign to curb underage drinking and increase compliance with the 21 minimum drinking age law in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The legislation is sponsored by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John Warner (R-VA) and U.S. Representatives Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Zach Wamp (R-TN).

"Underage drinking kills six times more teens than all the other illicit drugs combined," said MADD National President Millie I. Webb. "Despite the fact that over 10 million current drinkers are between age 12 and 20, the federal government has not placed a financial priority on addressing the biggest drug problem facing our children."

U.S. government surveys show that among the 10.4 million young Americans ages 12 to 20 who drink alcohol, nearly one-half are binge drinkers and 2.3 million are heavy drinkers (defined as consuming five or more drinks on five or more occasions in the past month).

"While the government spends nearly $18 billion on the drug war, only a mere fraction of funds addresses alcohol, the largest substance abuse problem among youth that serves as a gateway to other drug use," Webb said. "For example, the current $185 million Office of National Drug Control Policy anti-drug media campaign does not address underage drinking."

This week Webb is urging Congress to pass the underage drinking prevention media campaign legislation and to "set the record straight about underage drinking and our nation's lifesaving 21 minimum drinking age law."

Recent headlines have sparked much reporting and discussion about teen drinking. "Much of the public discourse has clouded the issue, perpetuated misconceptions, and missed crucial facts about teen drinking and the lifesaving benefits of the 21 drinking age law," Webb said.

In 1982, President Reagan appointed a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving which made its top recommendation the passage of federal legislation to require all states to uniformly raise the minimum legal drinking age to 21. In 1984, MADD played a pivotal role in working with President Reagan and the Congress to enact the National Uniform Minimum Drinking Age Act that led to each state making age 21 the minimum drinking age.

"The 21 drinking-age law was passed for good reasons: It makes sense and it saves lives. In fact, it saves about 1,000 lives each year," Webb said.

The American Medical Association (AMA) agrees. In a statement, the AMA said that lowering the minimum drinking age "would be a deadly mistake." Dr. Richard Yoast, who directs the AMA's Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, said that "underage drinking is a serious problem in this country, not something to be dismissed as a rite of passage."

Yoast pointed out that the higher drinking age is linked to a decrease in highway deaths and injuries, alcoholism and related medical diseases, suicides, date rape, sexually transmitted diseases, vandalism, violence, depression, early and unwanted pregnancies, tobacco and other drug use. "Rather than discussing the merits of a lower drinking age which science clearly refutes, the national dialogue should be focused on how to increase enforcement of this law that has already proven its effectiveness," said Yoast.

Research also shows that:

-- The adolescent brain is not fully developed until age 21, and alcohol affects adolescents differently than adults. Alcohol can cause irreversible brain damage to an adolescent drinker.

-- The earlier youth drink, the more likely they are to become alcoholics later in life and the more likely they are to drive while intoxicated and suffer injuries. The earlier the onset of drinking, the more likely people become alcoholics later in life and the more likely they will suffer traumatic injury compared to persons who wait until age 21.

-- A comparison of drinking rates between 10th graders in the U.S. and Europe -- where the drinking ages are lower than 21

-- revealed that a much greater percentage of young people from nearly all European countries drink and a majority binge drink.

"Despite these startling statistics, many young people are taking a stand against underage drinking. We as a society should embrace these young people and stop accepting the problem as part of the 'growing up' experience," MADD President Webb said. "It's time for our country to quit turning a blind eye to underage drinking and dismissing it as a 'rite of passage.' The truth is, it's killing and injuring our nation's future leaders, and it's time to face the facts and act now."

The pending federal legislation would authorize up to $1 million for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to research how the anti-underage drinking media campaign should be conducted and how much an effective program would ultimately cost. After six months, HHS would have to report back to the Congress on the level of funding needed to significantly impact the problem.

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