Rethinking Alcohol Use By The Emerging Adult

by Dr. David J. Hanson, Dr. Dwight B. Heath and Joel S. Rudy

In a majority of states in the US, drivers aged 16 and 17 gain valuable experience while holding special licenses that restrict the conditions under which they may drive (for example, only in daylight hours, only with a regularly-licensed driver in the car, etc.). This provides a slow and safe introduction to an adult priviledge. The same general concept should be adapted to apply to drinking.

An "apparently underage" young woman is holding a drink in an off-campus bar. When the police raid the establishment, she is questioned and cited for underage consumption. The event -- with no accidents, deaths or riots -- is seemingly unremarkable, but makes national news because the young woman is President Bush's daughter. But isn't the news more about who Jenna Bush is than what she has done? Have we not yet become tired of unreasonable underage drinking stories?

Compare this "newsworthy" item to other underage drinking stories. Each college term, we hear accounts of a small group of students who risk acute alcohol poisoning during rituals like "21 for 21" -- downing on their 21st birthday a shot of liquor for every year of their life. In dorm rooms and in off-campus apartments, sometimes-depressed students hole up with a bottle of alcohol, start to chug and are lucky if their failed cure brings nothing more than heaves and headache. Underclassmen find alcohol parties tied to the "Big Game," drink themselves insensible and fall to their death off balconies. It's all been in the newspapers, this waste of promising young lives that shocks us all.

One predictable reaction to accounts of injuries or death among these "adults" -- those old enough to go to war, marry, vote, sign binding contracts, but not buy a single draft beer -- has been to further tighten age-based prohibition. And, indeed, it is a growing response to incidence of alcohol consumption by college students. Policing is stepped up, penalties mount, task forces produce increasingly exotic ideas about how to quarantine young adults (even those who demonstrate the ability to drink moderately and responsibly) from alcohol beverages. Yet amid the countermeasures, the tragedies continue but are now accompanied by "sensational" citations for breaking the law.

Having a bird's eye view of collegiate drinking as both keen observers of drinking and its outcomes and long-term members of campus life, we would like to suggest an alternative to zero-tolerance: a system of gradual access to alcohol beverages by consumption-inclined 19- and 20-year-olds. Why not teach responsible drinking behavior under mature supervision, rather than leave these young adults to experiment on their own?

Consider the fallacy of the prohibition that now governs almost every U.S. institution of higher learning. At freshman orientation, half of the students are already "regular" drinkers by some definition. The newcomers immediately become members of a peculiarly narrow community.

Almost everyone is within a five-year age bracket. Through fraternities, sororities, other social organizations, dating, and less formal socializing, this narrow age group (18-22) thoroughly intermingles. Yet in any social setting where alcohol is present, the law says those 21 and older may drink beer, wine and distilled spirits in unlimited quantities as long as they do not drive or appear intoxicated in public; those age 20 years, 364 days or younger must stick with soft drinks or become lawbreakers.

Should anyone be surprised that zero tolerance is met with rebellion and rule breaking? Outlandish behavior is a typical reaction to prohibition, which is why the illegal speakeasies were always bawdier than the public bars that the Volstead Act shut down. The modern age-based prohibition seems to be working no better than the 1920s version; while a smaller percentage of young adults are now drinking, a sizable minority is drinking recklessly. Is there a ready solution? We offer one for consideration and debate: a provisional drinking license.

In more than 30 states, drivers aged 16 and 17 gain driving experience while holding special licenses that restrict when and how they may drive (for example, no late-night cruising). This permits a slow introduction to an adult privilege. The same concept should apply to drinking.

What could be the elements of a provisional drinking license? There could be time and place restrictions. The license holder could drink, for example, only in an establishment where at least 75% of sales receipts were for food (no bars, no liquor-store purchases). No service after 11:00 pm. Moreover, a 19- or 20-year-old could have to undergo formal instruction about alcohol and pass a licensing exam. Parents and other authorities could unilaterally revoke/suspend the special license without which service/consumption would be illegal. In addition, this provision would not be accompanied by any changes to the current .02% BAC law for under-21 drivers.

We realize that some few young people would undoubtedly still continue to drink too much, too fast, for the wrong reasons, or in risky settings. But for the Jenna Bush's of the world (by all accounts she was not exhibiting out-of-control drinking behavior) the vast majority who are eager to learn but denied any sensible opportunities, clandestine overindulgence could give way to public self-regulation, with the penalty for abuse being revocation of the privilege. Young people would learn to accept alcohol for what it is, a socially acceptable beverage in need of respect, rather than mythologizing it as a source of magical empowerment that increases with every gulp. Gone, too, would be scenarios that invite contempt for the current law -- the inability of two 20-year-olds to drink champagne at their own wedding, for example.

On the campuses or within organizations where we teach and work, we delight in seeing emerging adults grow in academic knowledge and in life-skills, turning before our eyes into competent adults. To leave alcohol outside this process, the record shows, is foolish and dangerous.

It's time to normalize behaviors at a moderate level rather than to continue to drive them underground to everyone's detriment. It is time to teach through trust and potential rather than through blame, accusation and guilt. It is time to open the doors to constructive debate rather than to keep them locked and continue to contribute to the consequences of the forbidden fruit syndrome. Let the discussions begin.


Dr. David J. Hanson, is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Dr. Dwight B. Heath is Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of Drinking Occasions and International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture.

Joel S. Rudy, Vice President and Dean of Students Emeritus, Ohio University.