Lowering the drinking age to 18

Will lowering the drinking age to 18 cut drinking related problems among young people? This is, oddly enough, one of the newest and most interesting approaches to fighting alcoholism. The theory, as propounded by a surprising number of experts, including some police as well as university presidents who are part of the Amethyst Initiative, says it may be the best way to fight an unprecedented wave of binge drinking and similar problems among college students. Take away the legal barrier, and you ?ll take away a lot of the thrill and the incentive.

Or, as the police chief in Boulder, Colo., home to the hard-partying University of Colorado, told 60 Minutes: ?The abuse of alcohol and the over-consumption of alcohol and DUI driving…are the areas we’ve got to focus our efforts. Not on chasing kids around trying to give them a ticket for having a cup of beer in their hand."

After the jump, a few thoughts about lowering the drinking age and why I ?m writing about it.

One of the things that always surprises me about so much wine writing in this country is that it exists in a vacuum. We write about toasty and oaky and scores in the hope that the really hip people who write about toasty and oaky and scores will notice us and that we can then become hip, too. We ignore the rest of it, like the economic, social and cultural parts of the wine business, and pretend that they don ?t have anything to do with wine.

This is silly. Of course they do. But writing about a pinot noir fraud or the problems inherent in the the three-tier distribution system are not the kinds of things that make your peers think you are special.

Fortunately, the Wine Curmudgeon does not have any of those problems. I ?m perfectly happy to sit my corner of the cyber-ether and write about this stuff, content in the knowledge that my peers will always give me quizzical looks. Trust me: When you specialize in regional and $10 wine, you get a lot of quizzical looks.

And we need to address the drinking age issue. It is important, and it will affect wine. The industry is doing tremendous work to break down distribution barriers, all of which could end tomorrow if it gets tangled up in the drinking age discussion. Because whenever the dark forces that oppose more equitable distribution laws want to slow change, they always play the underage drinking card.

As Megan Haverkorn, the editor of the trade e-letter Wine & Spirits Daily wrote: ?We believe the drinking age requirement at least deserves some dispassionate debate and research among policy makers. Whether it ?s the right decision or not, the issue shouldn ?t be squashed without giving it the attention it deserves. ?

Having said all this, I don ?t know the answer. On the one hand, I remember when the drinking age was 21 in Illinois, where I grew up, and 18 in neighboring Wisconsin. It was a rite of passage to hop in the car on your 18th birthday and drive across the state line to get liquored up. And if I did it, and I was a boring, responsible 18-year-old, you can imagine what everyone else did.

On the other hand, there is good evidence that underage drinking is out of control. The Amethyst group notes that ?a culture of dangerous, clandestine ?binge-drinking ? — often conducted off-campus– has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. ?

One of the most telling points on their side is that drinking bans tend to increase alcoholism. During Prohibition, the U.S. rate actually increased, and economists have discovered something called the Iron Law of Prohibition: The more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. Which sounds a lot like binge-drinking, doesn ?t it?

2 thoughts on “Lowering the drinking age to 18

  • By Tom - Reply

    It’s going to be hard to have a reasonable debate about this. I recently heard an anti-drunk driving crusader says that giving alcohol to anyone under 21 is “child abuse.”
    My kids have grown up with wine on the dinner table, and they’ve been at least sipping since they were 12. It’s a natural part of their lives; they can discuss the great grapes of Bordeaux and Burgundy. One is in college now and one is in high school and neither of them drinks anywhere but at the dinner table. They see being drunk as a sign of childishness rather than adulthood. I believe that one of the reason’s they are the way they are is that alcohol holds no mystique for them.

  • By Jeff Siegel - Reply

    That makes perfect sense, Tom. And you’re right — it is hard to have reasonable debate about this. Not only is it tied into the age-old American morality contradiction — we are the most free culture in the world in philosophy and much less free in practice — but it is political. There are sides in the debate who have a financial stake in the issue, and that affects how they vote.

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