Thoughts on Underage Drinking

by John Buell

My critics are certain that teens are uniquely damaged even by modest amounts of alcohol. Yet if readers accept this argument, they must still acknowledge that alcohol is only one of many risks teens face. Is the sedentary 18-year-old who (legally) smokes a pack of cigarettes a day at less risk of serious disease than the 18-year-old athlete who drinks a beer at dinner every night? How do the risks of soda or high-fat diets compare?

Many citizens suspect that culture and power rather than science drive decisions to criminalize certain groups and substances. Nor have my critics convinced me that jail terms for parents and storekeepers will be more effective than such draconian steps were in the 1920s.

The new prohibition fails to acknowledge the ambivalent place of older teens in our culture and is inattentive to the context in which teen and adult pathologies emerge.

Parents who are convinced that any alcohol injures teens should share this view with them. But ratcheting up a legal attack on "underage drinking" is problematic. In our society, parents properly rear children in the expectation that by 18 or even younger they will be independent adults able to weigh risks and rewards.

The United States is guilty of two glaring hypocrisies regarding teens. Political leaders claim concern for teen health, yet they allow and sometimes encourage teens to take risks when it suits adult society. Teens are free to die in Iraq or become low-wage managers working at convenience stores in the wee hours of the night. Just as fundamentally, adults routinely take varying degrees of risk for their own pleasure. No reader of this paper fears automobiles more than I, yet I commute to Ellsworth to play tennis. I could reduce my risk of a car crash and could achieve comparable aerobic benefits working on my stationary exercise bike at home.

Nonetheless, in today's legal climate, a 19-year-old veteran who has a beer at his 18-year-old fiancée's home exposes himself to fines and her parents to jail time. Such double standards invite contempt. Ironically, they also send the message that alcohol is the most coveted symbol of adulthood.

There are societies where teen drinking is almost nonexistent.

In Middle Eastern theocracies, adults do not drink. Consequently, there is no teenage drinking epidemic.

Police states that abhor independent minds of all age and have contempt for pleasure in most forms will eradicate underage drinking.

Critics counter that a lower drinking age in some European social democracies has produced an epidemic of alcohol abuse. World Health Organization data, however, indicate huge differences among European states with similar drinking ages.

The legal drinking age seems to be less important than the culture and practices surrounding alcohol.

Even one prominently featured article in the recent New York Times critique of underage drinking, from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, comments: "Italy, France, Portugal and Greece had similar or smaller percentages [of teen binge drinkers] than the United States. Whether young people in those countries are more likely to drink with family and in meal settings and whether such practices moderate risks posed by early drinking warrant study."

Such study is under way. Brown University anthropologist Dwight Heath has identified characteristics of several Southern European subcultures where teens legally drink as early as 16 but binging and the violence that often accompanies excess are much less common. These cultures teach their teens something many American politicians can't grasp - the difference between moderation and abuse. Teenagers have two equally acceptable options: (a) to abstain or (b) to drink in moderation. Parents do more than remove car keys. They teach and model in their lives the lesson that abuse of alcohol at any age is totally unacceptable.

In the U.S. context, a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health by Dr. Kristie Long Foley provides survey data showing that drinking alcohol with parents reduces teen binge drinking. It teaches teenagers responsible drinking habits and extinguishes some of the novelty of drinking.

I have one caveat. The more thoughtful U.S. studies present a distressing pattern. Alcohol abuse often emerges among risk-prone children with stressed, overworked and impoverished parents. Adding to their burdens, these children often attend inadequate schools. Some binge, receive no help and become addicted at an early age. The cultures with fewer drinking problems are less workaholic, and offer more support for families. Unfortunately, however, Western European welfare states and the religious movements that have reduced economic inequality, limited working hours and enabled family life are breaking down.

Some of these welfare states have been stridently nationalistic and have also imposed narrow understandings of the family. It remains to be seen whether more inclusive and cross-national citizen alliances to curb corporate exploitation, give adults some security, and support vulnerable children that can be fostered. Unfortunately in the United States, moralistic obsessions and attacks on vulnerable minorities stand in the way of such agendas, as in the '20s.


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