All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1998

Outmoded Paternalism

We Can Teach American Teens to Drink Gradually, Safely, and in Moderation

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

Every month seems to bring another tragic death from binge drinking at a fraternity party. That has led to predictable cries for government action.

But tougher prohibition is no answer. It is illegal in every state for anyone under 21 to buy alcohol (and in most states to consume it). Unfortunately, observes New York University sociology professor David Hanson, “We have driven them [the students] off campus, so now we have no control over their drinking.” Indeed, these tragic deaths show the problem of neo-prohibitionism: the greatest harm occurs from binge drinking, which is more likely to be reduced through family education than through legal sanction. And that kind of teaching would be more likely to occur if the drinking age was lower.

Threatened with the cut-off of federal transportation grants, every state has banned alcohol sales to 18-to-20-year-olds, people who are otherwise adults. Some states are targeting enforcement efforts against young adults. In Virginia, for instance, several alcohol-related deaths led the state attorney general to create a task force on campus drinking. Alcohol Beverage Control agents began raiding fraternity parties and other locations frequented by underage drinkers.

Some localities are also targeting adults under the age of 21 who drink. Beach communities like Key West have begun arresting kids who try to illegally snatch a drink. Last year Key West called its convict roadside sanitation crew the “spring break chain gang.”

While such measures may help fill local coffers or clean local parks, they are not likely to reduce underage drinking. An incredible 84 percent of college students drink. Nearly half of them and a third of all high school seniors report that they binge drink. More than half the nation’s tenth graders have used alcohol. There is no evidence that the shift in the drinking age has affected the drinking levels of young adults. As former Virginia State Attorney General Richard Cullen observed, “We’re failing miserably right now.”

A better strategy would be to teach young adults how to drink. Before leaving office Cullen urged consideration of lowering the drinking age to 18, in the hopes of keeping more students on campus. His successor, Mark Earley, observed that the state task force’s goal was not “to prosecute and persecute students,” but to “change the culture of binge drinking on campus.” The best way to change that culture would be to relax the law.

As Professor Dwight Heath of Brown University sees it, “The choice is not between control and the absence of control. The important choice is between formal controls imposed from without, which restrict individual liberties and often trigger reactive asocial or anti-social patterns of behavior, and informal controls shared by other members of one’s community and likely to be not only accepted but highly valued by most people.” David Hanson makes much the same argument. Simply saying “don’t drink” won’t prevent experimentation. It is “much safer if you introduce them to drinking yourself.”

In short, most adults will drink before they reach the age of 21, irrespective of the law. The objective, then, should be to encourage them to do so responsibly, not just when they are between the ages of 18 and 21, but for their entire lives.

That is most likely to occur by treating drinking as one of many rites of passage to adulthood. Instead of having to hold an illicit party, forge an ID, or cajole someone older to buy alcohol, those nearing adulthood could drink openly and in the company of other responsible users. In this way, lowering the drinking age, argues Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health, would help American teens “learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.”

This is the practice in most other nations. “In countries where people start to drink at an early age, alcohol is not a mystical, magical thing,” says Heath. People are less likely to “drink to get drunk because they know that’s a stupid thing to do.” Only four other nations set the minimum drinking age at 21. Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, and Spain all allow 16-year-olds to drink. In some countries there is no age limit if children are drinking with their parents. Portugal has no minimum age at all—and the incidence of alcohol abuse is far lower there than in America.

A similar strategy is worth considering here. Tom Gerety, president of Amherst College, complains that while any teacher knows that his students are drinking before age 21, “none of us is in a position to stop them. And where we would teach moderation, we are forced to teach prohibition—a lesson that few will heed.”

This educational process could be greatly facilitated by the family. Today kids tend to drink only with other kids. Hanson suggests permitting parents to serve alcohol to their children, even in restaurants, and to stress that responsible drinking, not mere drinking, is the surest sign of maturity. Family physician Patricia Roy counsels parents to allow their children to learn drinking at home: “Drinking is a social skill that must be taught, like table manners. Kids should learn how to drink responsibly under the guidance of someone who cares and won’t let anything happen to them.” A variant of this idea comes from Rod Park, chancellor of the University of Colorado (Boulder), who advocates “drinking permits” for college students who get parental consent and pass an alcohol-education test. He explains that “My understanding about how to make people responsible is to give them responsibility and hold them accountable.”

An important aspect of alcohol education is learning the equivalencies of beer, wine, and liquor. A recent Health and Human Services survey found that nearly three-fourths of high school students didn’t realize that a twelve-ounce can of beer had the same alcohol content as a five-ounce glass of wine or a shot of whiskey. One-third didn’t know that wine coolers contained alcohol. Abandoning strict prohibition for young adults would make it easier to correct such misapprehensions.

We need a more relaxed approach, similar to that of New Zealand, where children may drink with their parents in specified places and where the Liquor Review Advisory Committee has called for even more liberalization. The simplest change here would be to eliminate the federal minimum-drinking age. There’s no reason for Washington to set a national standard. States should declare independence from Washington and cut their minimum ages, even with the threatened loss of federal funds, and turn the socialization process over to parents.

America has a long and unpleasant history with various forms of prohibition. The family and community institutions are likely to do a far better job of teaching young adults how to drink responsibly. As Professor Dwight Heath puts it, “Drawing clear and realistic guidelines is the business of parents and society.”

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.