Lucille Blackburn, a Falls Church housewife, has a 14-year-old son with a drug and alcohol problem and an 18-year-old son who keeps his college domitory refrigerator filled with beer. Like a growing number of parents and school officials in Northern Virginia, she would like to see the state raise its beer drinking age to at least 19.
"I'm shocked at what our kids are doing," said Joyce Tobias, a working mother of seven who, with Blackburn, belongs to a 200-member group concerned about teen-age drinking in Washington's Virginia suburbs. "I'm tired of going to teen-age funerals."
Blackburn and Tobias were among the 15 supporters of a higher drinking age who testified here today to a House of Delegates subcommittee on what they see as the epidemic proportions of alcohol abuse among teen-agers.
Efforts to raise the state's drinking age have fallen victim for three straight years to a powerful combination of beer industry interests, bar owners and grocery retailers, as well as college student organizations who don't want to lose the privilege of drinking as freshmen. Both groups have some support from legislators who doubt that raising the age limit would be an effective deterrent to teen-age drinking.
None of the opponents spoke against the bill today, although lobbyists for the state beer wholesalers, food dealers and retailers sat silently in the hearing room as supporters joined the bill's sponsor Del. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), in harshly critizing the beer industry.
"The alcohol industry and its beneficiaries in the legal profession and advertising industry have reaped a rich harvest . . . while parent and children have paid a terrible price," said D.Z. Rathbone Jr., a Great Falls parent.
We'd like [the drinking age] raised to 21, but we'll take anything we can get," added Fairfax County Supervisor Thomas Davis.
Viginia was one of 27 states to lower its beer-drinking age during the 1970s, according to state statistics (the state maintains a 21-year-old limit for wine and hard liquor). Nine of those states have subsequently increased the age limit. Maryland also is considering a bill to raise its beer and wine-drinking age to 19.
One of the key advocates of keeping the limit at 18 is influential Del. Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk), the House majority leader, who has succeeded in keeping the bill bottled up in the General Laws Committee that he heads. Moss did not attend today's hearing and did not return a reporter's phone calls.
"There's no question that if Tom Moss had not opposed it, that bill would have come out of committee with flying colors," said Barry today. "Tom is what you could call a major obstacle."
Two years ago, Moss succeeded in having the bill sent back to his 20-member committee after Barry had steered it to the House floor. Last February, Moss took the unusual step of holding the bill for two weeks, after its final public hearing, until a hospitalized opponent returned to cast the crucial vote in a 10-to-10 tie that killed the measure.