US health and safety groups teamed up Tuesday in an effort to keep the legal drinking age at 21 amid a campaign from a small activist group to let Americans legally consume alcohol from age 18.
The advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the American Medical Association (AMA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced the creation of the Support 21 coalition to fight for the current drinking age law.
MADD chief executive Chuck Hurley said the coalition was formed to counterbalance the media attention being given to "Choose Responsibility," a small activist group based in the university town of Middlebury, Vermont.
Hurley, whose organization was a driving force in getting the legal drinking age across the United States raised to 21 in 1984, warned that lowering the age to 18 would lead to more binge drinking among America's youngsters.
"Everything in science indicates that the drinking age didn't cause binge drinking and will make it worse if it's lowered," Hurley told AFP after the press conference announcing the coalition.
Support 21 also cited "almost 50 peer-reviewed studies ... which found that an increased drinking age significantly lowers alcohol-related fatalities."
NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said his agency has long advocated laws that prevent people younger than 21 from drinking and that it has "not identified any new information that merits changing the Board's position."
"Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death and alcohol the leading drug of choice for teenagers," he said.
While 50 peer reviewed studies strongly support keeping the current drinking age, only one supports Choose Responsibility's position, Hurley said.
"This is about science. We're talking about life and death here," Hurley said, accusing Choose Responsibility of distorting facts to suit its arguments.
But John McCardell, head of Choose Responsibility, dismissed the accusations.
"They always say that we talk off the cuff and we have opinions masquerading as facts," McCardell, who was president of Middlebury College for 10 years, told AFP.
"They will tell you that 52 studies show a direct relationship between the drinking age and alcohol-related fatalities," he said. "But the rest of the story is that there are an equal number of studies that show no relationship."
His assistant, Amanda Goodwin, said the studies were from the same article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol from which MADD drew its peer-reviewed studies.
Choose Responsibility agreed with MADD that the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths has gone down since the legal drinking age was raised to 21.
"But the decline began before the drinking age law was changed and has occurred in every age group," McCardell said.
"If we are going to talk about lives lost to alcohol, let's talk about lives lost to alcohol, wherever," he said.
"Peer reviewed research has shown that more than 1,000 lives a year of 18 to 24 year olds are lost to alcohol off the highways.
"Those deaths are not taking place out in the open, in restaurants or bars or large public gatherings because the law will not allow that. The only place they can be occurring is those places where the law has sent them -- into dark corners and behind closed doors."