Let’s Get Real with Underage Drinking Laws

the Portsmouth Herald

When it comes to alcoholic beverages, we are a nation of hypocrites.

The typical beer or malt liquor commercial spends 29 seconds showing young people how cool and sexy it is to drink and in the last second reminds us to "drink responsibly."

So it is with shock that local law enforcement reacted last week when a bunch of 17- to 19-year-olds were taken into protective custody at a house party where the parents were present.

Not to pick on Jim Reams, who is a good county attorney, but his comments following the house party bust were completely over the top.

"I think it’s absolutely irresponsible for a parent to expose children to the dangers of alcohol and to give illegal conduct a sort of stamp of approval," Reams said.

Last we checked 18- and 19-year-olds aren’t children. They’re adults. We hold them accountable in courts for their actions when they commit crimes. We recruit them into our armed services, give them weapons, put them into battles and entrust them to make life and death decisions. We even allow them to vote.

And yet, when it comes to drinking, they are children.

What is behind this inconsistency?

How can someone be held responsible to represent our nation on a field of battle and yet not be responsible enough to drink a beer?

The arguments in favor of the 21-year-old minimum drinking age are that it reduces incidents of drunken driving and that those who begin drinking later in life are less likely to become alcoholics.

The counter-argument is that those who drink an occasional glass of wine at dinner with their family are less likely to see alcohol as a forbidden fruit and therefore won’t become binge drinkers when they get access to alcohol.

Obviously, it is an admirable goal to reduce drinking and driving, but just saying "no" is not enough. Go to any college campus in America on a Friday and Saturday night and you’ll see how poorly the legal drinking age is enforced. Everywhere our teenagers are getting the message to drink, and then are told with a wink and a nod - but you’ll have to wait till you’re 21.

Here’s an alternative proposal. What if, instead of futility spending millions enforcing the 21-year-old minimum drinking age, we spent the money educating our young men and women about drinking responsibly? How about some frank discussions about alcoholism and its rogue companions violence, crime and emotional destruction? What if we doubled our efforts to drive home the message to young adults, who view themselves as immortal, that drinking and driving kills.

Parents these days are in a tough spot. They know that alcohol is everywhere and that the message to their sons and daughters from society is to drink and drink hard. Some parents, who have opted to provide a safe environment for their adult children to drink, have been criminally prosecuted, just as our local law enforcement is considering prosecuting the Rye (NH) parents for allowing drinking in their home.

In our view, parents are not the enemy but rather the most important ally law enforcement has in its effort to reduce the dangers caused by irresponsible drinking. The minimum drinking age is violated routinely by 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds because it flies in the face of reality. It is time to consider amending our drinking laws to differentiate between these legal adults and children ages 17 and under.


Posted by permission of the Portsmouth Herald, where it was published as an editorial July 25, 2005.