Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Binge drinking and the 21 limit in the US

One of the most interesting differences I’ve observed between Europe and the United States has been the very different drinking cultures. A lot of those observations have been prompted by the unique experience of my brother, who moved to Switzerland at 16 when my father was transferred there for his job. As a high school sophomore in the US, he would have had five more years before he could legally have a beer.

But since the drinking age in Switzerland is 16, as it is in most of Europe, he was able to drink right from the start. Obviously his high school experience was quite different from mine in many ways, but one of the most notable aspects was his social life. While I had little access to alcohol in high school and my social life was mostly composed of small parties or trips to the local diner, he’s spent his weekends with his high school friends clubbing at some of Zurich’s premier nightspots. And while you might think that an American teenager arriving in a European country where he could suddenly legally drink would overdo it, I’ve observed that he’s been quite responsible and moderate about drinking. He’s been in a culture where binge drinking is not common and teenagers see alcohol not as just a means to getting yourself obliterated but rather a normal part of social interaction.

However now he’s graduated high school in Zurich and is, to my dismay, heading back to the US for college. It’s going to be a tough transition to say the least. Though he’s been accustomed to drinking and going out to bars and clubs for three years now, his social life will now have to drastically change. He now won’t be able to even have a beer with dinner for another three years. He can’t go into a bar or club. And since he’s going to university in Boston – probably the strictest city in the US for IDs – even if he gets a fake ID it would have to be amazing to get by Boston’s bouncers. And I wonder if, now that he’ll be in a culture where binge drinking is encouraged and his access to alcohol will be limited, the responsible drinking he’s learned in Switzerland will go out the window.

My brother’s situation highlights the absurdity of the US drinking age limit. But what’s even more surprising than the drinking age itself is the fact that it is not at all a topic of discussion or debate in the US. I find Europeans are always completely perplexed by the US drinking age, which is the highest in the developed world. But they’re even more surprised when I tell them that there hasn’t been any discussion of the law’s effects since the 21 limit was nationally mandated in 1984.

Today there’s been news that may change that. College presidents from about 100 of the nation's best-known universities have signed a petition calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying the current law actually encourages dangerous binge drinking on campuses. The movement, called the Amethyst Initiative, is seeking to spark a debate in the United States over the actual effects of the law. The argument goes something like this: people between the ages of 18 and 21 are going to drink either way, it would be silly to expect them not to, particularly when they are in college. However the prohibition on their drinking gives them inconsistent access to alcohol, creating a situation in which the only time they can get it is when they’re in an environment with an unlimited supply, such as a house party or a bar they’ve managed to sneak into. This encourages them to drink as much as possible while they can get it, thereby teaching irresponsible binge drinking.

I have to say having gone to university in this system this conclusion is dead on, and I know of few people my age who would disagree. I know that when I first got illegal access to alcohol at 18 I wasn’t nearly as responsible as my brother has been, and that’s largely because it was only available to me in binge drinking contexts. Having not been taught to drink responsibly before getting to university, and being unfamiliar with alcohol outside the context of house parties, the system made me think of alcohol as a means to an end rather than an enhancer meant to be enjoyed in moderation.

It’s not surprising then that research has shown that more than 40 percent of college students report at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. Another redcent study by published by the World Health Organization has also found that in many European countries, 15 and 16 year-old teens have more drinking occasions per month, but fewer occasions of dangerous intoxication than their American counterparts. In many southern European countries roughly one in ten of all drinking occaisions results in intoxication, while in the United States almost half of all drinking occasions result in intoxication.

Additionally, it’s estimated that one in six college students have possessed a fake ID in order to procure alcohol. As the initiative statement notes, “by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law." Having gone to college in Boston and then New York, I can tell you I don’t think I knew anyone without a fake ID. Going to school in a city, your social options would have been severely limited without one.

The specific law that the university presidents want repealed is a 1984 federal law that says that states which set their drinking age to less than 21 will lose 10 percent of their highway funding. Before then different states had different laws, but after that law passed they all quickly fell in line. But the university presidents know they have their work cut out for them, because it would be hard to convince legislators to change the law when they’re feeling no public pressure to do so. Young people don’t vote in significant numbers, and so a law that only affects people between 18 and 21 isn’t going to be high on their priority list. Additionally, public opinion is firmly against lowering the drinking age. Though this may be discouraging, opening up a dialogue on the subject might change people’s minds about it. With his high level of youth support, it would be nice to see Barack Obama take the issue on. But this would never happen before the election, as it would be political suicide to do so.

Of course you can’t entirely blame the binge drinking culture at US college campuses on the drinking age. Culture plays a large role in the issue as well. It’s been interesting for me to see that, despite it having a drinking age of 18, the UK still has a huge binge drinking problem. But their problem is very different than the one that exists in the US. In the UK, binge drinking cuts across age groups and sectors of society, affecting people old and young. In the US, it is chiefly a problem for people between the ages of 18 and 21 in college. And having observed British drinking culture for a year now, I can see that there are other factors at play than anything to do with the drinking age. Brits often bemoan the fact that they don’t have a more “continental-style” drinking culture, but you can’t change people’s behaviour overnight.

This would likely be the case in the US if the drinking age were lowered to 18. The 21 law itself has created such an entrenched culture of binge drinking at colleges campuses that it would likely take years to change people’s behaviour. But eventually, I believe it would. There is no doubt in my mind that lowering the drinking age to 18 would drastically reduce binge drinking on American college campuses. The US only has to look to continental Europe to see why.


Anonymous said...

I agree that the US drinking age is ridiculous. I am German but went to university in the US and I found it amazingly frustrating that I had to purchase a fake ID just to be able to drink a beer, something I had been able to do at home for many years before moving to the US at 19. It was such a risk to my immigration status, but I couldn't imagine going three years without a drop of alcohol! The law makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding people.

Kevin said...

Colleges do not want to be responsible for enforcing the law and do not want to be extra liable for under age drinkers overdosing/dying from alcohol.

Colleges do not want the lawsuits.

jason.blanchette@yahoo.com said...

Britain's legal age limit is 18 and they've taken the notorious reputation as the world's worst binge drinkers. The mayor of london has recently asked that alcohol retailers not sale alcohol to customers under 21.


Dave Keating said...

Jason, where did you see that news about Boris? I can't find it. I can't imagine how the mayor of London could ask stores not to sell to people under 21 when it's perfectly legal to do so.

Also you should note that I did specifically exclude the UK from the discussion of European drinking, as Britain is a whole case unto itself when it comes to binge drinking.

svlyn@hotmail.co.uk said...

No mistake about the raising of age limit to 21 for shop sales in London.


A lot of London Boroughs are behind this. What you have to realise is that the original notion our restrictive opening hours were behind the bingeing is being shown to be a false assumption.

Bingeing is increasing despite new laws extending opening hours. The reason being people arent changing how they drink but simply when. They go out later but still drink in a 3-4 hour period as much as possible. Why its worse is that where before it would be home from work, get ready, go out now its home, get ready, drink loads before going out, go out. They have the time now to preload. The ban on shop sales is aiming to reduce this preloading really.

Dave Keating said...

hmm well this is an optional scheme, so it's hard to see why shop owners would conform to it even if it went forward. This is clearly just another empty populist gesture from Boris to keep the Daily Mail readers happy.

I would agree that the licensing laws aren't the main motivator for British binge drinking. I would say it's just deepy part of British culture (in a way that it is not inherantly part of American culture). America may have a bing drinking problem with young adults, but Britain has a binge drinking problem with its whole population.

But again, for the purpose of this debate, Britain should be excluded from any comparison between drinking cultures in Europe versus the US, because Britain is such an extreem outlyer.

jason.blanchette@yahoo.com said...

Actually it's most European countries: http://www.udetc.org/documents/CompareDrinkRate.pdf

Scotland officials are considering raising their legal age to 21: http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gSDGoN96S7OKCIUCkPdP-vkU4LpA

Even countries that are believed to engage mostly in "light drinking" are having binge drinking problems with their teenagers, such as France: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/european_football/article1073904.ece

And here's the news on Boris: