Tapping into Americans' Drinking Problem

by Logan Jenkins

A Canadian friend, the mother of a graduating high school student, telephoned recently for some parenting advice.

Her son wanted to throw a pre-prom party at his Montreal home. The question: Should alcohol be served, as her son requested?

My answer was quick and short, expressed in a burst of questions, beginning with:

Are you insane?

I explained that, in my country at least, serving booze to underage kids is a crime, punishable by jail time.

What if one of the underage guests caused a car crash?

As the adult server, she would be criminally – and financially – liable for damages.

What if a girl was date-raped as a result of underage drinking the mother condoned?

How could she look the parents of the victimized child in the eye?

The Canadian friend listened to my diatribe but declined to apply to her country's socialized health system for a straitjacket. In fact, she wound up concluding that I – and, by extension, the United States – might be in need of alcohol counseling.

As I learned last week, the pre-prom party went off splendidly.

Young graduates arrived with their parents, and they were all served cocktails. Transportation to the prom was by limo or family car.

At a dinner dance, wine was served. Again, youngsters socialized in close proximity to parents. The general mood was of a happy family wedding in which the champagne flowed.

Our friend reported that her 16-year-old son had two drinks the whole evening – and enjoyed himself immensely.

Americans hate smug foreign stories like these. They make drinking seem so natural (and our disapproval so puritanical).

Unlike the vast majority of the so-called civilized world, which allows alcohol consumption at ages much younger than 21, Americans tend to focus on the statistical sorrows of underage drinking – and the crucial role of adults in discouraging it.

A towering example of this legal obligation towers over state Route 78. A new billboard is reminding adult drivers that they run a grave risk if they host any social gathering with underage drinking.

The billboard's visual grabber is a pair of handcuffs on a pair of wrists.

The message of the ad, funded by county grant money, is simple and strong:

Serve a kid, go to jail.

To a foreign tourist on his way to the Wild Animal Park, this blunt warning would seem, well, foreign.

In practically every other country in the world, except for Islamic strongholds, alcohol can be an integral part of family life. In Spain, for example, the legal at-home drinking age is 5; in Austria, it's 14.

If we had the same permissive laws in this country, according to most U.S. health officials, our young people would go to ruin before you could say, "Jack Daniel's."

Highways would be littered with wrecks, emergency rooms filled with under-21 casualties. The moral fabric of the nation's youth would be soaked in demon rum.

Given oft-broken American laws, which prohibit anyone under the age of 21 from ever drinking alcohol, sensible compromises are hard to come by.

As you may recall, the Marines recently softened their stance on on-base drinking, allowing underage Marines to have a few cold ones on special occasions, such as returning from a tour in Iraq.

This policy shift triggered a debate over whether Marines who possess the maturity to fight also possess the maturity to drink.

Only a severely conflicted culture could seriously debate this topic. You can kill the enemy, but you can't drink a beer?

Granted, it's probably an easy trap to idealize other countries for their liberal attitudes. You can bank on the fact that youthful drinking leads to health and safety problems abroad.

But it's also a trap to idealize this country's wholesale rejection of under-21 drinking. It's a social policy that infantilizes the nation's young so that they often binge when they finally do get their hands on a keg or a bottle of vodka.

To the young, forbidden fruit is always sweet, especially when it's fermented.

Growing up in their own Prohibition era, young Americans behave as adults did in the 1920s. They thumb their noses at authority and guzzle the equivalents of bathtub gin (as manipulative TV ads egg them on).

In practice, I suspect many American parents agree with our Montreal friend – and flout the law.

The Canadian mother doesn't want to encourage her son to drink compulsively, but she doesn't want to make drinking taboo, either. At family or religious celebrations, alcohol is on the table for all those old enough to join in the conversation, according to her family's custom.

(It would be an interesting legal test to see if the Jewish Passover, which involves ritual sips of kosher wine, merits an exemption from the local "social host" ordinances. Same thing for Communion wine, which symbolizes the blood of Christ, staining the lips of many underage Christians.)

It's a symptom of American neurosis, this implied criminalizing of a parent who adopts a more European attitude, if you will. But it's where we are as a nation, as my response to the pre-prom question demonstrates.

Don't misunderstand. The Vista billboard makes a good point. Any adult who hosts a party where kids go predictably wild deserves a fine, if not a jail sentence.

But does the same go for a family wedding where the champagne is happily flowing?

If it can't see a profound difference between the two settings, America will continue to be plagued by a serious drinking problem.


Posted by permission of Logan Jenkins from the San Diego Union-Tribune, where it appeared on July 5, 2007.