Here at Blowin’ in the Wind, we’re spending December looking at American behavior and attitudes toward drinking and drugging. First we looked at Prohibition, and then last week, the very American history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Today, our attitudes and actions on teenage drinking and drugging, and some comparisons to other countries.
If you want to drink legally in America, you have to be 21 years old. Same age for folks who want to smoke marijuana in the three states who have legalized pot.
How many other nations have a legal drinking age of 21, besides the US? Only three: Palau, Indonesia, and Mongolia. Every other country in the world allows either 16 or 18 year olds to drink alcohol. (And presumably smoking pot, where legal.)
I did not know this. I knew the drinking age was younger than 21 in the UK and France – is there even a drinking age at all in France? Probably also Germany. (Turns out 14 year old Germans can drink in public with their parents, and in the UK parents can give their kids drinks at home as long as they are over five. No ale for you, little four year old.)
But I guess I thought America had decided on age 21 because all our great American scientists and educators and legal experts had settled on that age as the best balance of adolescent development (surely we want our kids to be healthy) with personal freedoms (we do have a sort of frontier pattern of allowing all kinds of crazy behavior) and public safety (we’re pretty good on auto safety laws and say we want to reduce auto accidents.)
But every other nation is 18 or younger? Are they just reckless sots and bad parents?
And how’s that age 21 legal age working out for us? Are our young people happy to stay sober so their adolescent brains can develop drug free? Are they staying out of trouble so much that our law enforcement agencies are freed up to put resources into other illegal activities? Are we wiser and more obedient than other nations?
Or we still hanging on to some of our moralizing and misguided attitudes from Prohibition?
An interesting group of Americans has recently come out in favor of lowering the drinking age. No, it’s not college students. It’s college presidents. 135 of them signed a statement supporting a nationwide conversation about young adult drinking and a reconsideration of the drinking age. Why? Because of the epidemic of binge drinking. Half of all US college students who drink report that they engaged in binge drinking in the previous two weeks. Campus binge drinking is a major factor in another campus epidemic: sexual assaults. These university presidents point out that in European countries teenage drinkers tend to be introduced to alcohol by their parents and that only one in ten drinking episodes results in inebriation. In the US, on the other hand, young people learn to drink away from home and in half of every drinking session the young drinkers get loaded.
The organizer of this effort is a former Middlebury College history professor. He knows his US history: Prohibition, he reminds his colleagues, had more unintended negative consequences than success. Folks actually drank more and faster when it was prohibited. That’s what binge drinking is now. Crime and illegal supplying of booze skyrocketed in the 20’s and today there is still a huge subculture of illegal and criminal supplying to minors. He points out that drunk automobile accidents started going down in the 60’s, when the drinking age was 18, and has stayed down, despite the change in drinking age in the 1980’s, and can be credited to air bags, seat belt laws, lower blood alcohol level and designated drivers. Not to this new Prohibition.
Oh, and speaking of blood alcohol levels, a rough survey of the laws for that in different countries suggests that most places bust you for fewer drinks than in the US, even for commercial drivers (most places it’s zero for truck drivers etc, but in the US it’s .04, half of what regular drivers can get busted for.)
So other countries seem to do a better job setting up a learning process with their kids and being more realistic about what kids are up to. And holding them, and commercial drivers, more accountable when they do drink. (Or am I just indulging in grass is greener, anything is better than US envy? Easy to do.)
As I’ve said it the two previous columns, we’re so ambivalent in the US about having fun in general – we are puritans and libertines at the same time. And we seem to give our kids that very mixed message with a dollop of denial. When it comes to drinking, and sex for that matter, we say, “It’s fun, great, our basic hoped for activity at the end of every day. So don’t do it.” Especially as we relate to our kids. Our default approach to difficult issues seems to be Nancy Regan’s favorite: Just say no. Like having your only sex ed curriculum be abstinence. It just doesn’t work. Instead of parents discussing with their kids how to make decisions on important issues like drinking or sex, we just say, don’t do it! Til you’re out of the house.
As part of the newly legalized marijuana in Colorado the state health department is trying to convince teenagers to obey the law (age 21) by citing studies that heavy dope smoking in young teenagers affects IQ and increases risk of schizophrenia. One of their campaign slogans is “Just Say Know.” (More on legaliztion of marijuana next week.)
I like to think that knowledge is better than denial, that “know” is a better approach to education than “no.” But, then, I’m an American, ambivalent and in denial.
Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter