BUSH twins' case stirs debate on underage drinking

Saturday, June 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ The Bush twins' brush with Texas drinking laws may have them in trouble with authorities and the many Americans who support the nation's ever-toughening stance on underage drinking.

But the news is getting shrugs _ and even laughs _ from a number of college students who wonder why it's a big deal if a 19-year-old wants a margarita.

Angela Quiram says Jenna and Barbara Bush are simply doing ``what college students do.''

``It's a rite of passage,'' Quiram, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said as she sat with friends at a Chicago bar frequented by college students.

Quiram marked her own passage into the adult world of drinking with the $212 ticket she got two years ago, at age 20, for drinking on campus.

A few doors down at another bar, 21-year-old Sam Yingling _ who admits he used a fake ID when he was a freshman at Chicago's DePaul University _ joked with his friends about the Bush twins' case.

``It's the opposite spectrum of Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea was the good little girl. It was her father who was always in trouble,'' he quipped.

The Bush sisters were cited Thursday by Austin, Texas, police for allegedly violating state alcoholic beverage laws. Jenna is accused of using someone else's ID to try to buy a margarita at a restaurant. It would be her second offense and Barbara's first.

College students like Quiram and Yingling know they sound like a bunch of scofflaws. But they and others say they should be able to drink in a country where they're old enough to vote and to serve in the military.

They're unlikely to win the argument _ at least for now.

In May, a panel of health officials issued a report for the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services that ``strongly recommended'' keeping the drinking age at 21. It also recommended lowering the blood alcohol content limit for young drivers to .02 (it's .08 in many states for adults).

Some states are already making moves to crack down on underage drinking. In Ohio, for example, lawmakers are considering changing the format of young drivers' licenses _ from horizontal to vertical _ to make them easy to spot.

Police in college towns, and universities themselves, also are getting tougher. Students at the University of Illinois in Urbana say it became more difficult for underage drinkers to get alcohol after teens as young as 13 were caught drinking in a bar last year.

And last month, California State University _ the nation's largest public university system _ proposed policy changes that would control alcohol advertising on campus and more strictly enforce drinking laws. The proposals came in the wake of the drinking-related death of a student.

There are some adults who support upstart student groups such as Realistic Alcohol Laws for Legal Youth, or RALLY. The organization was founded in 1995 at Syracuse University with a goal of getting the legal drinking age changed back to 18, as it was in New York in the early 1980s.

``Our perverse postponement of drinking creates problems instead of solving them,'' said Dwight Heath, an anthropology professor at Brown University and author of two books on alcohol use.

He said Americans should emulate countries such as Spain and France in allowing young people to drink moderately, thereby making them less likely to binge drink. He suggests two glasses of alcohol a day for men and one for women.

But there are also young people who support the current laws _ and who fear that lowering the drinking age would only lead to more deaths. Already, alcohol is a factor in a third of teen car crash deaths nationwide.

Meagan Gaither, a member of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Youth in Action, is helping federal officials plan a conference in Los Angeles in July aimed at lowering the number of teens who die in car crashes.

Gaither, 18, of Fort Worth, Texas, is worried the Bush incident will send teens the wrong message.

``It sounds weird to say it lets you down _ but it does,'' Gaither, who will be a freshman at Texas Christian University in the fall, said of her fellow Texans' case.

Others, including 21-year-old Bob Mosier, believe it will all blow over soon.

``It's going to be a punch line on the 'Tonight Show,'' the University of Illinois student said. ``Then it'll go away.''