Drinking Age?

Yup, I've been hearing about this Amethyst Initiative about lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 and wondered if I should blog about it from my perspective. Then I saw that Jake wrote a good post about it (and also see his older post on the topic and good comments by his readers) and decided to chime in.

I grew up in a country with no drinking age laws at all. When I was very young, perhaps as young as five, one of my regular chores was to go to the corner shop to buy things like bread, milk, yoghurt or whatever else was needed. Sometimes that meant I would get some beer or wine or liquor. And it was fine to sell that to me at that young age (though the bottles were heavy!).

Also, at pretty young age, my brother and I were given bevanda (watered-down wine) or beer in a tiny little glass to sip with the Sunday family lunch. Then we would take a nap. Perhaps a sip of wine at the moment the New Year strikes in.

Later, in high school or so, we experimented a little more, at parties and during summer vacations, with our friends. But it was very, very rare that anyone got really drunk. I have never in my life had so much alcohol that I could not walk home in a pretty straight line, carrying my guitar without breaking it, climbing up seven floors, unlocking the door sufficiently quietly not to wake up the rest of the family, and putting myself to bed normally (i.e., undressing, putting on my pyjamas, etc.).

Then I came to the USA. Once, early on, a bunch of us (including the future Mrs.Coturnix) went to one of those places where people dance the Electric Slide. The age limit to enter was 21. I was 25, everyone there was my age or older. And everyone was binge-drinking some excuse for beer. And behaving in a more infantile way than my friends and I ever did when we were 15. We never visited such a place again. I sometimes go for months without a sip of alcohol. But then I enjoy a glass of really good wine, or beer or liquore every now and then as well.

Now, it is easy to say: America bad, Europe good. But how does one improve the situation in the States? I don't think lowering the drinking age would do any good on its own. In most European countries there is a culture of drinking, a respect for alcohol, and even a degree of snobishness about kinds of drinks one imbibes (not a bad thing in this case, I say) - none of it existing in the States.

Lowering the drinking age would only change the timing - the binge-drinking parties would happen at the 18th birthday parties instead of 21st. How does one change a culture? From Miller Lite binge-drinking culture to a society of enologists and connoisseurs of local microbrews? I don't think asking parents to teach the kids would make any difference, as the parents and grandparents are equally missing that component of early childhood education. The drinking problem here is not occuring just among the college crowd, but at all ages.

I would completely eliminate drinking age. But before that, perhaps a year before that, I would:

1) enforce the drunk driving laws better. Once people start getting tickets and losing licences, they would think twice next time.
2) eliminate the laws that prevent people from moving good wines and beers across state lines.
3) elminate lwas that prevent sale of booze on Sundays
4) start a huge educational campaign through all media outlets and all communication channels: TV, radio, newspapers, street posters, roadsigns, pamphlets left in bars, blogs, etc. actually explaining how to teach kids to drink responsibly and to have a healthy respect for alcohol. Having free classes offered. Wine-tastings. A year of such all-out campaigning (similar to the anti-smoking one that was pretty successful) would probably make enough of a difference to make it safer to carefully eliminate the drinking age laws, then monitor the effects and reinstate or alter the laws as needed.

Every country has its alcoholics. But in most countries, most of the people are knowledgeable about drinking. It can be done in the USA as well if a lot of thought and planning is put into it. And money.

Oh wait! The prime candidates for funding such a thing, e.g., the producers of Miller Lite, might not like this scheme after all....because educated public would not drink their crappy product any more.


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You've made some very compelling points here. You might be interested to know that a new site called Opposing Views is currently hosting a debate on the drinking age that features the main players. Choose Responsibility is leading the charge for a lower drinking age, while the Governors Highway Safety Association claims that the "21" drinking age law has saved 25,000 lives. You can check it out at: http://www.opposingviews.com/questions/should-the-drinking-age-be-lower…

I would really like to hear what you have to say about the groups' arguments and objections.

2) eliminate the laws that prevent people from moving good wines and beers across state lines.

Actually, it really should be "eliminate the laws that prevent people from moving good wines and beers within state lines".

The distributor industry has managed to convince many a legislation, including Maryland, that the only way to ensure that the state collects the fair taxes on alcohol sales is to be sure that the distributor nicely collects it for them. Thus, ALL sales of wine and beer from brewer/winery to retailer MUST go through a licensed distributor (and needlesstosay, the licensing process ain't easy).

In short, they are asking for a subsidy to exist as a required monopoly and have gotten it, even though it is for local makers and local restaurants, utterly unnecessary.

The result is that many local wineries in the state are collapsing for lack of sales (many are too small to even gain the distributors notice, and relied on local restaurant sales for their promotion to increase in-person visits and sales). And many restaurants and establishments are unable to acquire beers they are interested in because Anheiser-Busch's distributors happen to have a monopoly on local beer and the local A-B company is rightly hated by pretty much everybody.

So just getting beer across state lines is problematic enough, but even getting local beer within the state can be troublesome under the current political situation.

And ALL of it are the great remnants of that something the Europeans have been laughing at us for decades over (besides breaking up the only working telephone system on the planet): Prohibition.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

I agree totally. Maybe do the same thing about marijuana and LSD, too? Naw, just kiddin'. I have been thinking that alcohol laws are really stupid. Would we let someone whose parents had never introduced them to cars use one without responsible supervision? Heck no! Children should be influenced by their parents, and learn responsible habits.

Governors Highway Safety Association claims that the "21" drinking age law has saved 25,000 lives

statistically, 25,000 over 25 years ain't exactly all that much, given the total number of traffic deaths (underage or not, drunk-driving related or not) that occurred in that same time-frame. Yeah, it means a lot to the families of those 25k, but that falls under personal anecdotal claims, not reasonable reasons to keep an authoritative law in place.

Personally, I'm in favor of the British system, where the ages are legally in place, but staged - 14 to drink a sip at home under parents supervision, 16 to drink in a pub with parents *as long as you're eating food*, 18 to drink in a pub and purchase in a shop. By the time they reach 18, they've effectively been "trained".

But then again, the last thing this country would ever do is pass a law that actually MAKES the parents be responsible and actually do their part in making this a better society.

So much easier to pass the job to the government, isn't it?


By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

I expect that nobody will really like my answer as explained in the post. I am against lowering the drinking age - I am for eliminating the drinking age altogether.

But, my proposed strategy is multi-faceted and I expect different readers to latch on to different aspects of it. There are five:

One is harsh and punitive - stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, something that my liberal readers may not like.

Three are liberalizing - elimination of drinking age, allowing transport across (and within) state lines, sales on Sundays, something that prohibitionist, pseudo-moralist readers will not like.

But the point of the post is that neither the stick, nor the carrot, nor the combination of both, can work in vacuum. Thus, the fifth part, the educational effort, is the most important. If a country has no drinking tradition, it has to be built from scratch, with an enormous, omnipresent and sustained educational effort. Teach responsible drinking in middle schools and let the kids teach their parents.

OK, I am unable to find any reason against stricter drunk driving laws. It KILLS! There are viable alternatives to not driving your car, and the effects of drinking can NOT be denied. When the punishment is just, severe, enforced, and the action unnecessary, I believe few people will do that action. I'd be careful about prison time, though. I don't really think that's a good punishment - kinda like jailing people for doing drugs, instead of helping them - not that the drunk drivers should be helped, of course, unless they really need help.(aka other problems)

I agree with your position on this. Various drinking prohibitions have done little to address the problems of binge drinking and drunken driving. A sustained campaign to change the culture might do so, as long as there were not competing messages to do the opposite and the campaign was accompanied by liberalization of the alcohol laws.

I think your premise (about America vs Europe in regard to binge drinking) is problematic.

2005 report by a program of Boston University's School of Public Health:

"European teenagers drink more alcohol more often than their American counterparts, and get drunk more frequently, as well, according to researchers from the PIRE Prevention Research Center.

Philanthropy News Network reported Nov. 17 that researchers said data on youths ages 15-16 from 35 European countries showed that every nation in Europe except Turkey had higher teen binge-drinking rates than the U.S.

"The claim that Europeans learn to drink moderately and safely in a family setting has been used by many in the United States to argue for lowering the drinking age," said report author Joel Grube. "But our research shows that premise is a myth. Easy access to alcohol seems to allow young people to drink heavily and in a risky fashion, whether in Europe or the United States. Raising the drinking age in the United States has been an extremely effective public health and safety policy. Based on our research, weakening that policy would be a serious mistake."

The teen binge-drinking rate in the U.S. is about 22 percent, compared to 60 percent in Denmark, 57 percent in Germany, 54 percent in Great Britain, 34 percent in Italy, and 28 percent in France, the PIRE report said.

The study data came from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs and the U.S. Monitoring the Future survey. The report, "Youth drinking rates and problems: A comparison of European countries and the United States," is available online."

Google image search: macrobotellon (Spain's binge drinking fests)

2005: Binge drinking in Europe

2008: Binge drinking in France

I have to say, snobbishness is helping me much. At least with beer, the good stuff tends to be much higher proof. Being a lightweight, I have to be careful after even one good beer, and when it's that tasty, it's hard not to want a second.

Colugo: if that is true, the solution is not for the USA to keep the drinking age laws, but for Europe to also implement a multi-faceted educational program.

Coturnix: I don't know what the solution is in terms of drinking laws, but I'm certainly with you about the educational program. Teetotalling is never going to work as a society-wide practice (barring a police state), so socialization in moderate alcohol consumption is the only way. Unfortunately, it appears that a "Northern" (Germany, UK etc) culture of public binge drinking has already infected Southern Europe. (Is soccer one vector?)

"When the punishment is just, severe, enforced, and the action unnecessary"

Doesn't really need to be all that severe. It just needs to be *certain*. 10 years imprisonment that probably won't happen is nowhere near as effective a deterrent as knowing for certain that your car *will* be impounded for 14 days.

Here in oz, police can do random breath tests. I inderstand there are legal impediments to that in the USA.

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

"European teenagers drink more alcohol more often than their American counterparts, and get drunk more frequently, as well, according to researchers from the PIRE Prevention Research Center."

Hasn't occoured to you that information from the "prevention research center" might be a litle, well, biased?

By Paul Murray (not verified) on 19 Aug 2008 #permalink

You can't directly compare teen drinking patterns in the USA and Europe, because it's legal in much of Europe and illegal in (most of?) the USA. Apples and oranges.

What I think Coturnix is saying is that adult drinking patterns are worse in the US than in Europe, so you'd need to compare rates of "binge drinking" in the over-25 age group. And of course, you'd need to make sure that you're using a consistent definition of "binge drinking", which you're unlikely to get from national statistics. But yeah, the trends in Europe definitely seem to be going in the wrong direction.

The big stinking elephant in this room is advertising. Without addressing that, you're wasting your time. The massive rise in binge drinking in the UK is clearly co-incident with the aggressive marketing of so-called "alco-pops", which are marketed at the lower end of the legal age spectrum. And of course, whatever you advertise for 18-year-olds has a massive appeal for 14-year-olds. I'd favour advertising restrictions on alcohol very similar to those on tobacco - no TV advertising, no print advertising, no sports sponsorship. I think it's really made a difference in people's attitudes to tobacco.

One is harsh and punitive - stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws, something that my liberal readers may not like.

Heck, I'm so liberal that the term "liberal" is inadequate, but I still regard drink driving as roughly equivalent to discharging a firearm at random in a public place. It's a serious offence, and should be treated as such.

In general, I think age restrictions are counter-productive - they make alcohol into a forbidden, "grown-up" thing, which is the way to make kids REALLY want some.

Apparently, though, Scotland is considering raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 for off-sales. This would mean that an 18-year old could go to a pub or student union to drink, but could not buy alcohol from a shop and take it home. The idea is that pub drinking is "supervised" - landlords are, at least in theory, supposed to stop serving customers who get completely smashed. I'm not totally convinced, but it's an interesting idea.

(This liberal, too, reckons drink driving laws should be strict and well-enforced.)

Apparently, though, Scotland is considering raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 for off-sales.

Yes, this is being considered. If implemented, it might raise the age at which kids actually start buying booze from off-licenses from 14 to 16...If it were enforced.

I know how to stop people from binge drinking! You don't binge drink as much if you actually LIKE the taste of what you're drinking. So if we shut down PBR and Miller Lite and Natty, people will be forced to drink better beers and appreciate them! Chugging Guinness (I don't CARE if it's an Irish car bomb) is a crime against flavor.

Something we did not mention here is the question of class. There are plenty of people in the USA who are responsible drinkers and connoisseurs of good drinks, as there are in Europe. There are plenty of binge-drinkers and alcohololics in Europe, as there are in the USA.

Responsible drinking is often associated with class: who your parents are, what neighborhood you live in, what kinds of kids you are likely to go to school with. The "upper" classes have a tradition of drinking good stuff (which they can afford) and thus responsibly. The "lower" classes usually cannot afford good stuff and also do not have a family/societal tradition of responsible and gourmet drinking.

binge-drinking parties would happen at the 18th birthday parties instead of 21st.

I think you're underestimating American puritanism, at least with respect to parenting. I think the coming of age binge would become a lot less common if it occured before high school graduation. There may be an increase in teenage binge drinking, but I don't think it would be associated significantly with a birthday. I think it would be a long while before American parents drink, even moderately, with their children.

Something we did not mention here is the question of class.

Ah yes - Châteauneuf du Pape combines with Fillet Mignon to stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for witty after-dinner conversation, whereas Brown Ale reacts with chips to activate the havingafight cortex... ;) (Sorry, it's a skit - can't remember where from, can't find it on YouTube, but it's very funny.)

Seriously though, class is an important issue, and not just for cultural reasons: when you come off a miserable 12 hour night shift in the factory, you just want to get drunk as quickly and efficiently as possible to try and blot out the fact that you're going to have to do it all again tonight. If your life is just an endless grind of work and poverty, why not just get pissed?

As someone once put it:

You'll never live like common people,
You'll never watch your life slide out of view,
And then dance, and drink, and screw,
Because there's nothing else to do.