Facing the Grim Facts of Teen Prohibition

by John Buell

Three weeks before publishing its eye-catching "Grim Neurology of Teenage Drinking," The New York Times reported on another beverage children consume, breast milk: "Breast-fed babies are at lower risk for sudden infant death syndrome and serious chronic diseases later in life, including asthma, diabetes, and leukemia. ... Research on premature babies has even found that those given breast milk scored higher on IQ tests than those who were bottle-fed."

The case against infant formula - based on trials with human babies who consumed normal amounts of formula - is at least as strong as the case against moderate teen drinking - mostly based on extrapolations from rat studies or severely alcohol-dependent teens. If infant formula were as stigmatized as beer, the government would warn parents who formula feed that they are exposing children to dangerous health risks. It might even require prescriptions for mothers who cannot breast feed and prosecute any others who "furnish" formula to their infants.

Fortunately, according to the Times, even critics of infant formula resist this punitive approach. At least in the case of mothers, the public health community acknowledges that sanctioning behaviors widely regarded as normal, private home matters will only be counterproductive.

Families would benefit from better health education regarding the dangers of formula. Women who breast feed deserve far better economic and cultural support. For now, however, I want to consider another question: Teens and alcohol may be a more politically acceptable target than formula-feeding mothers, but even if most parents agree to tell their teens that any alcohol before age 21 is dangerous, will their words produce the intended result?

Parents today are supposed to begin early. When asked by a 14-year-old if they drank before age 21, the parent is to reply that it is a private matter they won't discuss or tell the teen about terrible or embarrassing consequences of their drinking. Either option will be a nonstarter for many parents. A "none of your business" response hardly elicits trust.

Most parents could not honestly say that their experiences with underage drinking were predominantly bad. Some mistakes were made in early drinking experiences, but the first date and job interview were hardly flawless. Many parents would prefer taking such a question as a teachable moment to discuss the consequences of excess. Even middle-school children have a "b.s. meter" for adults. When adults, especially moderate drinking and successful ones, tell teens that their drinking in late high school or early college years was primarily a source of addiction, emotional trauma, or irreversible intellectual loss they evoke laughter.

One longtime substance-abuse counselor recently e-mailed me that "the surest way to fan teens' interest in drinking is to emphasize that it is for adults only. The most sensible approach is to raise them in families or other groups which model intelligent attitudes toward drinking. Ego psychology says that inner controls are formed by adaptation to the average expectable environment."

When adults drink to excess, their example will be more detrimental than any words. Mike Males, author of "Scapegoat Generation," points out that measured by the same standards applied to teens, "... adult drinking is also 'grim.' Compared straight across, adults who drink show more difficulties and bad outcomes than adults who don't drink. That difference, as for teens, disappears once the heavier problem drinkers are separated from the more moderate drinkers, but we Americans have trouble understanding the difference between 'drinking' and alcohol abuse."

Inability to make these distinctions is compounded when police bust a sober or moderate drinking parent's home for nothing more than quiet, supervised drinking by young adult teens. Making an example of selective parents will force some parents to forbid all drinking. Nonetheless, it will also lead other especially risk-prone or vulnerable youths to drink rapidly, without food, in remote locations - and not to seek the psychological help they may need. Even some parents who disapprove of all teen drinking will resent police intrusions.

When a majority forbids activities a large minority has long practiced safely and enjoyed in spaces generally deemed private, it is impossible for the police to enforce the law. Police must fall back on selective enforcement. They often target individuals who are distrusted for other reasons (racial minorities) or with whom police have personal grudges. In addition, since the police inevitably know many persons practicing such behaviors, favoritism becomes inevitable.

Many young adults on the UMaine campus believe the safest place to drink is in apartments where hockey players live. As one puts it, "even the cops don't want to bust the UM stars." Whether accurate or not, such a judgment reflects a disturbing level of cynicism.

Citizens of all political persuasions need to reconsider Prohibition. Total consumption did diminish, but alcohol abuse remained rampant. More ominously, organized crime thrived and the technical and legal capacity to spy on ordinary citizens dramatically increased. Americans eventually rebelled, but a nasty scar was left on the body politic.


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

Filed Under: Prohibition