Rethinking Drinking by Young Adults (How to Reduce Abuse)

We should be rethinking drinking by young adults. That’s the advice of three experienced college observers and researchers. They are Joel S. Rudy, Dr. Dwight B. Heath, and Dr. David J. Hanson.


In a majority of states in the US, drivers aged 16 and 17 gain experience while holding special licenses. These restrict the conditions under which they may drive. For instance, 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.


Each college term, a few students risk alcohol poisoning during rituals like “21 for 21.” That is, downing on their 21st birthday a shot of liquor for every year of their life.

In dorm rooms and in off-campus apartments sometimes students hole up with a bottle of alcohol and start to chug. They’re lucky if it brings nothing more than heaves and headache.

Underclassmen find alcohol parties tied to the “Big Game.” They drink themselves insensible. And they fall to their death off balconies. It’s all been in the newspapers, this waste of promising young lives that shocks us all.

Predictable Reaction

rethinking drinking by young adultsOne predictable reaction to accounts of injuries or death among these adults has been to further tighten age-based prohibition. And, indeed, it is a growing response to incidence of drinking by college students.

Policing is stepped up. Penalties mount. Task forces produce ideas about how to keep young adults from drinking. Yet amid the countermeasures, the tragedies continue.

Alternative Reaction

We three have a bird’s eye view of collegiate drinking. Both as observers of drinking and its outcomes. Thus, we would like to suggest an alternative to zero-tolerance.

It’s a system of gradual access to drinking by drinking-inclined 19- and 20-year-olds. Why not teach responsible drinking under mature supervision? Instead of leaving these young adults to experiment on their own.

Fallacy of Prohibition

Consider the fallacy of the prohibition that now governs almost every US college. At freshman orientation, many of the students are already “regular” drinkers.

Most are within a five-year age bracket. Through socializing, this narrow age group (18-22) thoroughly intermingles. Yet the law says those 21 and older may drink in unlimited quantities. That is, 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.

Zero Tolerance Fails

rethinking drinking by young adultsShould anyone be surprised that zero tolerance is met with rebellion and rule breaking? Outlandish behavior is a typical reaction to prohibition. That’s why the illegal speakeasies were always bawdier than the public bars that the Volstead Act shut down.

The current 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 debate. It’s a provisional drinking license.

Provisional Drinking License

In a majority of states, drivers aged 16 and 17 gain driving experience while holding special licenses. These 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 only in venues where at least 75% of sales receipts were for food. That is, no bars, no liquor-store purchases. No service after 11:00 pm.

Moreover, a 19- or 20-year-old could have to undergo instruction about alcohol. They would pass a licensing exam. Parents and other authorities could unilaterally revoke/suspend the special license. Without it, alcohol service or consumption would be illegal.

In addition, this provision would not be accompanied by any changes to the current BAC laws for under-21 drivers.


We realize that some few young people would continue to drink too much. But for the vast majority clandestine abuse would give way to public self-regulation. Of course the penalty for abuse would be revocation of the privilege.

Young people would learn to accept alcohol for what it is. A socially acceptable beverage in need of respect. Not mythologizing it as a source of magic potion that increases with every gulp. Gone, too, would be contempt for the current law. For instance, the inability of two 20-year-olds to drink champagne at their own wedding.

On our campuses we delight in seeing young adults grow in life-skills. They turn before our eyes into competent adults. To leave alcohol outside this process, the record shows, is foolish.

It’s Time

It’s time to be rethinking drinking by young adults. We need 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.

We should be rethinking drinking ny young adults. Let the discussions begin.

Rethinking Drinking by Young Adults

Authors of Rethinking Drinking by Young Adults
    • Dr. Dwight B. Heath is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology (Research) at Brown U.
    • Joel S. Rudy, Vice President and Dean of Students Emeritus, Ohio U.
    • Dr. David J. Hanson, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the State U of New York at Potsdam.
    • Know of any items that should be added to rethinking drinking by young adults? If so, contact hansondj [at sign] potsdam [dot] edu/. And thank you!