Considering the Drinking Age

Being in my mid-thirties I don’t commit a lot of time thinking about the age limit for drinking. I spent my later teens living and working in Germany where drinking laws are much more reasonable so the great American milestone of turning twenty-one didn’t carry quite the earth-shattering significance for me. By then I was back in the US but already having experienced a society where drinking doesn’t carry the no-no stigma I didn’t think much of it. I did go to a grocery store to buy a bottle of brandy but I wasn’t even carded.

But today two headlines about the drinking age caught my eye, mostly because I find their juxtaposition in time and subject matter a little amusing. The first comes from the BBC. Britain has long had a drinking age limit of 18. Peter Fahy, a constable from Cheshire, made headlines by publicly recommending an increase in the drinking age to 21. Siting a wave of teen violence, he claims that raising the limit would send a clear message that drinking is bad. Seeming to contradict his own point, he admitted in the same interview that underage drinking is significant to this wave. He also wants to restrict areas where public drinking are allowed. So, his solution is to make alcohol tougher to get a hold of and, when it is legal, to hide it from public view. Good plan since it’s working so well on this side of the pond!

The other headline comes from MSNBC here in the US where the nation-wide drinking limit is 21. (By the way, I learned an interesting little tid-bit from this article. There is actually no nationwide legal drinking age. But States get hit in the pocket-book by the federal government if they don’t enforce a limit of 21.) Arguments are being raised publicly to lower the drinking age to a more British-like 18. The arguments are similar to arguments against any form of prohibition, for that’s what a drinking age is – an age based prohibition against alcohol. The proponents of lowering the age say that people are going to do it so why not legalize it with controls so they can do it in the open and benefit from the protection of an open society? People are going to drink between the ages of 18 and 21 but making it illegal simple forces them, as it did the entire nation during Prohibition, to drink cheap hard liquor rather than socially enjoying a beer or some wine, an alternative that is obviously safer.

But the won’t-someone-please-think-of-the-children crowd is loud and shrill and it’s doubtable that we will see a lowering of the drinking age here in the US. Of these two headlines, I think that the British one is more likely to come to pass, although I wouldn’t put my money on either. Alcohol is an easy political whipping boy and elected politicians find it hard to come out pro demon-liquor when the other side is claiming that doing so would kill children.

These aren’t debates that one would see in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, or any of the other European nations with a long, comfortable history of societies enmeshed (awash?) with alcohol. Children in those countries are brought up knowing about adult beverages and knowing how to respect them. Instead of hiding alcohol and focusing on laws to save the poor babes, these countries teach a healthy knowledge of alcohol. The surest way to make a kid want something is to tell him that he can’t have it and this is the obvious result of the no-no society in Britain and the US. If kids are brought up knowing that moderate drinking is an enjoyable adult activity without the stigma of being secret and taboo, these frantic and baseless arguments would eventually evaporate.

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