Further Reading

Would legalization of alcoholic drinks to minors decrease or increase underage drinking?

Would legalization of alcoholic drinks to minors decrease or increase underage drinking?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous:

The U.S. is the only country in the world that does not permit people under 21 to drink legally in public. The idea is not whether you increase underage drinking, but how such drinking takes place (is it moderate and regulated), and what kind of drinking this leads to in adulthood. Drinking by children is bad when it is damaging, inappropriate, unregulated. Alcohol in itself is a benign substance that has been consumed by most of the world's cultures throughout history. In other words, our cultural drinking problems are represented in our fears about alcohol and our apprehension that children will be tempted by this forbidden fruit, while our portrayal of alcohol in this light leads to worse attitudes, behavior, and experiences with alcohol.

Remarkably, in the years in the U.S. when the promotion of alcohol's danger grew the most (throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s), the number of people reporting symptoms of alcohol dependence doubled. In the group with the most alcohol dependence symptoms — 23-29 year-old men — 14% reported such symptoms in 1967 and 31% in 1984!

I always turn to the example of Jewish people, who on the Sabbath chant a prayer to wine with their children while all sip from the wine cup together. On Passover alcohol is sipped periodically throughout the meal by all those at the table (except to the extent that Americanized Jews have begun to fear alcohol as much as other Americans). In a 1980 article in the American Sociological Review and a 1984 article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, two sociologists at the University of Syracuse, Barry Glassner and Bruce Berg, investigated Jewish drinking in a large upstate New York City because they believed that traditionally low Jewish alcoholism rates had increased over the years. Of the Jewish people the sociologists actually interviewed, none had ever had a drinking problem. Investigating all reports by activists in the Jewish community who had announced a growing alcoholism problem, Glassner and Berg could not actually locate one Jewish alcoholic. Accepting at face values all such reports led to calculation of an alcoholism rate of about one-tenth of one percent among Jewish adults.

What is the problem with youthful drinking? It is children drinking in the woods, driving while drinking, developing unrealistic and escapist fantasies around alcohol, and the persistence of these problems into young adulthood and beyond. Sipping wine with parents at dinner or at religious ceremonies is the antithesis of a drinking problem. All policies that lead children to be exposed to alcohol in such moderate-drinking settings reduces the likelihood they will enter the group of almost a third of young men (and 18 percent of young women) who develop alcohol dependence symptoms in their twenties. And, yet, we push for policies that lead to exactly the wrong kind of drinking.

Stanton