Rethinking the Drinking Age

It first requires rethinking the nature of alcohol

I was managing a wine and beer store in Columbia in 1984, when the General Assembly raised the drinking age in South Carolina from 18 to 21. Despite my vested interest in selling beer to frat boys with more dollars than sense, I considered the new law to be sound policy that would save lives.

That, after all, was its stated purpose — to keep drunk kids off the road. And the General Assembly had incentive beyond public safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation mandated that states raise the age of imbibing or have their federal highway funds slashed. Some state legislatures whined and squirmed at this “meddling,” but all eventually fell in line. South Carolina was among the last.

So today we have a drinking age of 21 from coast to coast, in 50 separate states and the District of Columbia. These laws are broken daily by tens of thousands, including George W. Bush’s daughters when they were underage. Nearly 70 percent of 20-year-olds use alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anyone who doubts this should take a walk through the neighborhood around the College of Charleston on a Friday or Saturday night. And this could be said of almost any college campus in the nation.

What brings this to mind is the recent bust of more than 70 young people for underage drinking in the Columbia area. Apparently most of the bustees were University of South Carolina students. The busts came down at two large parties — one in Lexington County, one in Richland County — neither of which was near the USC campus. That means that all the young people would have been driving back to the campus or to their homes at the end of the night.

This situation is a classic case of unintended consequences. By all appearances, the law to keep young drunks off the road has had the opposite effect. Now, instead of going to bars near campus (or on campus, heaven forbid!) where they can stagger back to their dorms, they are driving to off-campus parties like the ones near Columbia. And most alarmingly, they are driving back home in a condition that makes them a threat to themselves and others.

There are several issues here, besides the proverb that anyone who is old enough to go to Iraq and fight for George Bush’s folly is old enough to drink a beer and celebrate coming home alive.

Of all the industrialized nations, the United States has the highest legal age for drinking. In many European countries there is no minimum age; in others it ranges from 16 to 18. Such tolerant laws reflect a very different attitude toward alcohol. In no European nation is alcohol condemned as evil and ungodly by large groups, such as we find in the U.S. There it is treated as part of family life, part of religious ritual, part of growing up. Here it has long been seen as forbidden fruit — including a bitter experience with Prohibition.

Millions of American kids, raised in small towns and soul-killing suburbs, attending their little hellfire-and-holiness churches or their glitzy megachurches, receive the same message: that alcohol is the temptation and gateway to sin. At the same time (and for the same reason) it is advertised and glorified as the elixir of happiness and popularity. No wonder these kids can’t wait to get away from mom and dad and the preacher and find out for themselves. They will almost surely overindulge, make fools of themselves, and do dangerous and stupid things.

It is American attitudes toward alcohol which make it dangerous. In putting it off limits to young people, we guarantee that they will binge drink; they will sneak around and drive wherever necessary to drink outside the law; they will come to accept law breaking as a natural part of life and the law itself as an irrational inconvenience.

South Carolina’s lawmakers have shown a particular zeal in saving their youth from the scourge of ethanol. In the last session they strengthened drinking laws, increased fines and penalties for those who provide alcohol to anyone under 21, even mandated a system of registration tags for beer kegs.

It would be nice to say they were doing this to protect young people, but in a state where tens of thousands of children have no health insurance or daycare, where the schools are the worst in the nation, and the school buses are the oldest and most dangerous, we know this would be a lie. Our legislators are merely following their ancient, puritanical instincts.

It’s time America examined its irrational laws concerning age and alcohol. But before we can do that we must first examine our attitudes toward the nature of alcohol itself.

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