There has been much discussion lately about lowering the legal drinking age. Tom Wark has argued strongly for lowering the legal drinking age in the past and has again spoken in support of the idea.
Lowering the legal drinking age will not do anything to reduce road fatalities and it will not make 18, 19 or 25 year-olds more responsible with alcohol. The parenting attitudes and practices of an entire country would need to change to affect a difference in the behaviors of 18-25 year-olds.
Not that it would be easy. And it would not happen overnight. Then, there is the fact that we are still dealing with individuals whose brain development is not always ready for truly adult decisions.
George Carlin used to say that in this country we have a “child fetish”. As a society we coddle children, fear their emotions and want to be their pals not their parents. We are “in love” with our children instead of loving them the way parents should. I see this routinely in my clinical work: parents bring in their kids because of “behavioral problems” but watching them interact with their kids, it is immediately clear where the root of the problem lies.
In our constant pursuit of trying to protect our kids from themselves, we deny them the opportunity to develop experience, judgment and maturity. There are no guarantees, however. I do everything I can to demystify wine and alcohol in my house, but I don’t delude myself that when my son gets to college, he will not be drawn to the thrill of wild parties and the pursuit of young women enhanced by the euphoria of a major alcohol buzz. Still, I have to continually remind myself that his brain is developing and maturing with every day and will continue to do so into his mid-twenties.
I’m sure all sorts of statistics and (anecdotal?) examples from Europe will be bandied about to demonstrate why we should lower our drinking age because European college youth are so much more responsible with alcohol. This is just a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence.
I was born and raised in Europe. I went back to Europe for medical school. And, yes, I partied a bit too. Most European college youth party as hard as their American counter parts. They get just as crazy and irresponsible. There may be some differences in drinking behavior, but these are generally small and rooted in economics and the general cultural attitudes. That does not mean that that European 20 year-olds sip fine wine while wearing dickies. Case in point: Majorca is the Ft. Lauderdale of Europe and has become notorious for disruptive vacationing college youth going to excess.
Young people seek thrills and pleasure. No country or culture is immune from this tendency. They take risks on impulse and don’t fear their mortality the way their parents do. Alcohol amplifies this behavior. Only a very tiny fraction of the 18 to 25 group drink alcoholic beverages to savor their complexity. The majority drink for the intoxicant effect. That is the way it has been for ages and it will not change. Human nature is pretty stable and predictable. It’s why young adults (particularly young men) have higher car insurance premiums: because, as a group, they have been demonstrated to pose a greater risk behind the wheel and with alcohol.
I agree that it is an incredible paradox that an 18 year old can be given a rifle and be trained to kill but can’t legally consume an alcoholic beverage after seeing his buddy get slaughtered in some country far from home. But this is only an ironic paradox. It is not a trump card in the “lower-the-legal-drinking-age” argument.
I don’t have a visceral opposition to the drinking age being lowered, although the evidence before me leads me to the conclude that it won’t do much to change the behavior of young adults. I just don’t think that there is a quick and simple way to change drinking patterns of American college-aged youth. I really don’t have any clear solutions and I don’t think there is one ‘keystone” solution. Our whole culture would need to change and the results would not be seen for at least a generation. That still will not change the natural history of individual brain development. That, ultimately, is the deciding factor in how people behave around alcohol.
I do think it’s silly, though, for those of us in the wine writing and selling business to say it should be legal for an 18 year old to buy and consume a bottle of wine when we know damn well that the said 18 year old would rather spend that same amount of money on a case or two of beer or a bottle of generic vodka.
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