Are Young People Responsible for Drinking?

In the criminal justice system young people are increasingly being held responsible for their actions and punished as adults. For example, two brothers who were aged 12 and 13 were found guilty of first degree murder of their father and were convicted and treated as adult offenders by the state of Florida. Similarly, although Lee Malvo was 17 at the time at the time of a murder spree that killed 10 people, prosecutors are trying him as an adult and will probably seek the death penalty. 1

According to the United States Supreme Court, young people over the age of 16 can be held responsible for their actions and are eligible for the death penalty.

On the other hand, the assumption underlying current alcohol policies in the U.S., as well as recent lawsuits against alcohol producers, is that young people are too immature to assume full responsibility for their own actions.

So the question is this: How can a 12- or 15-year-old be responsible for murder but a 20-year-old adult isn’t responsible for choosing to consume a drink of alcoholic beverage?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that that only by assuming the 20-year-old adult is helpless can money be extracted from alcohol producers.


  • 1. Colb, Sherry F. A lawsuit against “big alcohol” for advertising to underage drinkers: Are minors accountable for their actions? FindLaw’s Legal Commentary. (, 12-3-03.


  • Anheuser-Busch, Miller face California suit. Financial Times (U.K.), 2-4-04.
  • Berk, C.C. Alcohol industry faces suit alleging marketing to teens. Wall Street Journal, 11-21-03.
  • Brown-Forman/underage lawsuit - 2; Diageo also a defendant. Dow Jones Newswire, 11-26-03; alcohol industry suit - 3: Defendant Beer Institute comment. Dow Jones Newswire, 11-26-03.
  • California group sues Anheuser-Busch, Miller. USA Today, 2-4-04.
  • Flass, R. and Jensen, T. Brewers hit with “alcopops” lawsuit. Adweek, 2-4-04.
  • Lawsuit claims companies market alcohol to kids. Kansas City Star, 2-4-04.
  • Lawton, C., and Wilke, J.R. Suit alleges alcohol industry targets underage drinkers. Wall Street Journal, 11-28-03.
  • Schoenberger, R. Underage drinking provokes suit. Courier Journal, 11-26-03.
  • Teinowitz, I. Marketers blast charges in alcohol suit: Diageo, others refute idea they go after teens. Advertising Age, 12-1-03.
  • Teinowitz, I. $4 billion lawsuit filed against beer giants: Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller charged with advertising to minors. AdAge, 2-4-04.
  • Weintraub, M. California group sues top U.S. brewers. Reuters, 2-4-04.