Throughout history, people have always wanted what they can’t have. Since the 1970’s, this is the attitude most lawmakers in America have taken with respect to underage drinking. It was at this time that many states changed the legal drinking age form 18 to 21. The theory behind this was, essentially, if you raise the drinking age, people will drink more responsibly, because with age comes responsibility. Unfortunately, the people who made these laws did not consider that responsibility is something that comes from experience and teaching – not just age. Currently, there are many anti-alcohol groups (most concerned with the problem of drunk driving) trying to stop people from drinking illegally before the age of 21. However, I feel that the solution lies not in abstinence, but in teaching young people how to drink responsibly, and by doing so at a younger age.
The United States is one of the only western nations on the planet in which the drinking age is over 18. In most cultures, drinking is perceived as a social activity. In Europe, many children (and I do not use the word “children” loosely) begin drinking in a social context with their parents by the early to mid-teens. In France, many families include wine as a part of the daily dinner, and in England, it is legal for a person to have an alcoholic beverage, in a public restaurant, with a parent, at the age of 16. So why is it that in America, we consider people who have wine every night to be alcoholics, and associate 16-year-olds who drink with stomach pumps? It seems to me that Americans have created an artificial problem with drinking, which precludes us from imbibing in the same fashion as Europeans. The fundamental difference lies in learned responsibility. Europeans teach their children to drink responsibly, whereas in America, children grow up being told that alcohol is as deadly as cancer. I am no developmental psychologist, but I am almost certain that the best way to get a child to do something is to tell them not to do it. So what happens? Kids are drilled for years about the harmful effects of alcohol, yet often see adults drink. The result is that when these children grow into teenagers, their curiosity heightens, and they raise their glasses without knowing quite what they are doing. These teens do not know their tolerance levels, or which drinks mix and which do not, and that is why some people’s first experiences with alcohol are played out to the tune of sirens and emergency room jargon.
For many teens in America, the appeal of drinking lies as much in the procuring of the alcohol, as it does in the actual consumption. But in countries where it is legal for teens to drink, that element of mischief does not exist. A perfect example of why the drinking age should be lowered, is a conversation I had with a friend who had returned from spring break in the Bahamas last year. I should preface this story by saying that the person, and her friends (whom she vacationed with) habitually drank and got drunk on weekends. Upon their return, I asked my friend if she had gotten “hammered” every night during their trip. She replied that, surprisingly, she had not, because it was not such a big deal when you can get alcohol so easily. For that one week in the Caribbean, the bloom was, effectively, off the rose, as they say, for several of my friends. As a result, they drank more like responsible adults as opposed to reckless kids.
Seemingly the antithesis of the above account, I came to college and encountered someone who had not been exposed much to alcohol in high school. This person was, however, very eager to learn. Within a few months, he had developed a relatively high tolerance, and was drinking with myself and others one night, when he felt that he was not getting drunk enough fast enough. To compensate for this problem, he chose to “spruce-up” a screwdriver he had made (with roughly 4 shots of vodka), by pouring a can of beer into the concoction. It is quite a sight to see someone consume a beverage containing malted hops, barley, vodka, and citrus juice. The point is, this person would never have dreamt of throwing back one of these mixes if he had been exposed to alcohol earlier, and was taught to drink responsibly.
While I firmly believe that people who can vote, go to war, or buy cigarettes (which are just as lethal as alcohol) should be able to enjoy a drink responsibly, I must admit that what I am proposing would require a change in an entire culture. This is not easy, if not impossible. Is it a lost cause? Is the problem of alcohol abuse in this country irreparable? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a lost cause, but I also don’t have all the answers.
What I do know is that giving an 8 year-old a D.A.R.E. T-shirt is not going to keep them from spilling beer all over it ten years later. Educate people all you want. Show them videos about people killed in drunk driving accidents until their myopia rivals Magoo’s. You will never escape the fact that people are curious by nature, and young people will continue to drink as long as they continue to see the majority of adults in this country drink responsibly. But we never hear about this aspect of the drinking argument, because designated drivers do not usually kill people. I agree something has to be done about the problem of alcohol abuse in this country, but why not start at the bottom? Teach children to drink responsibly when they are young. Stop pretending that just because kids should not drink, that they don’t. Kids drink. In every town, in every state, kids drink. So instead of showing them dried-up livers, try making it so that kids learn not to abuse alcohol, and can enjoy it responsibly. Lowering the drinking age may not be the answer, but considering that thousands of teens lose their lives each year to some sort of alcohol-related cause, it’s worth a shot.