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WASHINGTON (AP) — Two-thirds of Americans — both adults and teen-agers — say they support the legal drinking age of 21, says an Associated Press poll. Teen-agers support the law even though teen drinking remains widespread.

Even more people — three fourths of both teens and adults — say they think laws on the drinking age should be enforced more vigorously, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR of Media, Pa.

The enthusiasm among teens for strict enforcement is not as unusual as it may seem, said Ralph Hingson, a researcher on alcohol and youth at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

“In a given year, the majority of high school seniors drink, but only a small proportion are drinking heavily,” Hingson said. “On balance, they are supportive of legislation that will reduce the risks to themselves. Teens recognize the seriousness of drinking and driving.”

After dropping significantly in the 1980s, when the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in all 50 states, the level of teen drinking has settled in at a rate many consider too high and a continuing health hazard.

School officials and drug abuse experts are now looking for ways to regain momentum against a problem associated with 2,273 traffic fatalities among people 15 to 20 in 1999, the most recent statistics available.

Fake IDs and underage drinking have been in the news since the 19-year-old twin daughters of President Bush, Jenna and Barbara, had a brush with the law. The sisters were cited by police after their visit May 29 to a Mexican restaurant in Austin. Two weeks earlier, Jenna Bush had pleaded no contest to underage drinking and was ordered to receive alcohol counseling and perform community service.

The average age that teens start drinking dropped from about 18 in the mid 1960s to about 16 in the late 1990s, research suggests. Those who start drinking younger are more likely to become alcohol dependent.

“We need to re-evaluate what we’re doing and do something different now,” said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Options include tougher enforcement, community education and promotions to tell students drinking is less rampant than they might think.

In a 1999 survey, about half of all high school students said they had consumed alcohol in the past month. Drinking levels grow higher for older teens.

The legal drinking age had reached 21 nationwide by 1988 — spurred by a 1984 federal law that tied federal highway dollars to compliance by the states with that drinking age.

Research suggests the amount of teen drinking dropped by about 13 percent after states raised the drinking age. The number of alcohol-related traffic deaths of those between 15 and 20 dropped by almost half in the decade after the drinking age was changed, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“It’s clear that the move in the age to 21 is the most successful effort that we’ve had in the last couple of decades to reduce drinking and alcohol,” said University of Minnesota researcher Alexander Wagenaar.

Dwight Heath, an anthropologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I., counters that Europeans are right to expose people to drinking at a younger age and demystify alcohol so that it causes fewer problems than in this country.

Both adults and teens in the poll thought penalties such as losing a driver’s license would have the most influence on persuading teens not to drink, according to the poll. The survey of 1,008 adults and 514 teens was taken June 6-10. It had error margins of plus or minus 3 percentage points for adults and 4 percentage points for teens.

Both students and school officials say teen drinking remains very popular in high school.

“Most of them have easy access to alcohol in their homes, their friends’ homes and fake IDs,” said Ted Feinberg, a school psychologist.

For Mara Conheim, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, “freshman year was all about finding a fake ID.” Another Maryland student, 21-year-old Brent Robbins, said older students often lend IDs to younger classmates. Gary Paleva, director of the college’s office of judicial programs, says the college does all it can to prohibit drinking, but “sometimes parents have lost control before students get here.”

“Drinking is caused more by peer pressure,” said Detroit high school teacher Cassandra Jerrido. “I don’t see any of our efforts working.”National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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