by John Buell
Maine's attorney general, Steven Rowe, has posted on his Web site two public service announcements criticizing underage drinking and impugning the integrity of parents who tolerate such activity even in supervised circumstances. His ads may do more harm than good.
Nationally underage binge drinking was more common a generation ago. In Maine, fewer high school students binge drink now than ten years ago. Any binge drinking is a problem, but suggesting it is a growing epidemic can increase peer pressure to drink.
Current brochures on underage drinking also feature a misleading claim: alcohol consumption before age 21 is associated with higher incidence of alcohol-related problems in later life. Like Adam's infamous apple, the substance itself is treated as the source of subsequent evil.
If fourth-graders whose parents kiss them every morning receive dramatically higher scores on the MEAs, is a kiss a day the key to their success? If such a correlation exists, it probably indicates that parents who kiss their children also spend more time tutoring their children.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) studies only show that underage drinking is part of a cluster of variables that are associated with problems in later life: low socio-economic status, low parental education, low self-esteem, certain genetic conditions that may predispose to alcoholism, and problems in school. Some NIAAA literature even concedes that very early alcohol consumption may reflect rather than cause a risk-taking personality.
Risk-prone 10-year-olds need love and attention. Instead, many have overworked parents, crowded schools, peeling lead paint in their apartments, and often go to bed hungry.
In addition, adults who take up drinking long after their peers also have a much higher probability of developing severe alcohol problems. We really have a classic U-shaped curve. First-time use at unusually early and unusually late ages probably reflects more than causes greater psychological anxiety and economic distress.
No course is risk-free, but none of this work contradicts a theme I will develop in a subsequent column: Drinking by late teens in supervised and stable settings is associated with fewer long-term risks than complete laissez faire or attempts to impose absolute prohibition.
Critics of teen drinking also argue that teen brains are insufficiently developed to provide proper cognitive assessment of and emotional responses to prospective dangers. Then why allow teens to drive, a task in which immature or reckless action can have irremediable consequences for all of us?
The attorney general brands as irresponsible any parent who tolerates a party at which young adults drink - even if car keys are removed and close scrutiny maintained. He is acting irresponsibly and may be encouraging disrespect for the law. "Zero tolerance" of teen drinking in any circumstance will create the worst of all possible worlds - more driving by teens ever less ready to deal with the dangers of alcohol and ever more resistant to parental advice.
When police bust quiet supervised parties, many parents will forbid any drinking on their property. Some youth will comply, but young adult children are legally - and often financially - independent of their parents. Many see the "just say no" message as inflated. They resent police intrusions on their privacy. They will drive to more remote locations and be even less inclined to accept any future health warning.
These fears are not merely hypothetical. Advocates of the current legal drinking age (21) maintain that it has reduced alcohol-related crashes among teens. Such crashes among teens have declined, but reductions have also occurred in most age categories. Stronger enforcement of drunken driving laws and sensible designated driver programs have probably played the largest role.
A Rutgers University study, however, reports a less publicized side of this story. Alcohol-related driving deaths have actually increased in the 21-24 age range. By boosting the drinking age we place more 21-year-olds unaccustomed to alcohol on our roads. We displace the problem to a slightly older age range.
Police can never enforce all the laws. The community's health and safety are better served by putting aside busts of supervised young adults and cracking down on all forms of reckless driving. There are laws that, like Jim Crow statutes, are not worthy of respect. Though underage drinking bans do not represent an equal injustice, they are a civil rights violation. They deny one category of citizens (young adults) - who can die for their country, vote for our leaders, marry and parent children - the right to drink with their peers even at a parent's home.
In the current climate of hostility to alcohol and teens, the courts may deny the injustice here. I applaud young adults and parents who have the will and the courage to stand up to these inequities. The attorney general should engage in dialogue rather than in one-sided denunciations of concerned parents whose only failing is to reach conclusions different from his.
Originally published in the Bangor Daily News , June 13, 2006. Posted by permission of the author, John Buell ([email protected]), who is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. This is the first of four columns on underage drinking. He invites comments and criticisms and would be pleased to provide an annotated bibliography for interested readers.
The other columns are