, Research Paper
The Hands of the Citizens
We have a problem with alcohol in the United States. Kids abuse it, adults misuse it, and our drinking age of 21 is supposed to help the situation. The drinking age is not only failing to help alcohol abuse; it actually adds to the crisis. The age restriction on drinking, which perpetuates alcohol as a forbidden fruit, should be abolished to protect justice and safety in our society. First, instead of strict laws, we need to develop a communal policy to educate our children. Secondly, education should be accompanied by openness in family and society, an openness that would allow kids to try alcohol in safe, responsible environments.
The spirit behind the criminalization of alcohol in this country is that drinking provokes atypical excitement and causes drunkenness. But as we learned the hard way during prohibition, alcohol cannot be taken out of society ?it has always been there. How many people become alcoholics because they never learned a safe, responsible way to drink? A German family consumes more beer in a year than milk. In France, small children sit down to a glass of wine with their dinners. As James Griffioen, editorial writer for the Western Michigan University student newspaper, puts it, ?If we could take alcohol out of America’s moral dungeon, perhaps we could begin to free those who are chained to it.?
Those in favor of the current drinking age don?t feel children and teenagers are responsible enough to handle alcohol?s effects. Parents are afraid for their children and believe a strict anti-drinking policy is the answer. Adults assume that universally restricting access to alcohol will quash children?s curiosity. Consequently, the government has taken the easy way out by assuming a hard-line stance, with a high drinking age and firm punishments for children and teens who engage in normal, adolescent experimentation.
The consequences of such a strict policy are harmful and deadly. Since most kids are not allowed to drink alcohol with their parents (which would be a controlled environment, presumably), they do it with their friends. The difficulty in obtaining the alcohol and finding a place to consume it makes binge drinking more appealing, since kids feel they need to get all they can out of a night of drinking. Additionally, kids are not well educated on how much alcohol is too much. They are taught that ?1 beer = 1 shot = 1 glass of wine?, but they don?t know what that means in the practical sense. So kids sneak around behind their parents? backs, lie about drinking, and maybe even steal the alcohol. They drink in an environment of uncertainty, an environment rich with the negative influences of peer pressure and adolescent rebellion. Kids drink to the point of sickness, and the threat of alcohol poisoning becomes greater and greater. Maybe some of their friends have heard about alcohol poisoning at school and know that a person should be taken to the hospital, but often times they choose to gamble with their friends? lives so they won?t get in trouble.
Proponents of the law use drunk driving to further their argument. They boast statistics that show lowered drunk driving rates since the increase of the drinking age from eighteen to twenty one. However, drunk driving has declined for all age groups, suggesting that this law may not have been the only factor.
What about drunk driving? Would abolishing the drinking age increase the number of drunken teens on the road? There would definitely be young people who would abuse the privilege of no drinking age. But the number of abuses would lessen in time. There are many responsible 19-year-olds; at the same time there are plenty of irresponsible 22-year-olds. It is unfortunate that in ?The Land of the Free,? young people must take on the responsibilities of adults, yet are denied the opportunity to make such a simple choice.
The average age of drunk drivers is thirty-nine, suggesting that drunk driving is not as problematic among young people. In fact, polls suggest young people are much more afraid of drunk driving than adults. Maybe the solution is to make penalties for a DUI more severe and consistently enforced for all age groups. In Europe, where alcohol is much more socially acceptable for a broader age range, drunk driving is not tolerated. Although I support abolishing the laws restricting drinking, there is an important difference between this policy change and one that increases severity for drunk driving. Abolishing an age restriction on alcohol will protect children from drinking in dangerous environments without understanding alcohol?s effects. A tougher stance on driving under the influence will protect everyone on the road. Instead of taking away people?s choices, which hurt the responsible and the irresponsible alike, we should simply punish the irresponsible more sternly. Drunk driving is a tragic problem with dire consequences, but the United States must acknowledge that enforcing responsibility is more effective than criminalizing something that kids do anyway.
The ironic part of anti-drinking groups such as Mothers Against Destructive Decisions (MADD) is that they argue for the present drinking age because of the statistics showing a correlation between an increased drinking age and less alcohol-related car crashes, yet MADD deserves much of the credit for the decrease in drunk driving. The drinking problem in America can be attributed to society?s failure to address the issues surrounding alcohol. Groups like MADD shift this paradigm to one of openness and discussion. Although they oppose drinking ?which is less successful than accepting its presence and dealing with it?they promote the values of teaching children about the dangers of alcohol and its potentially hazardous influence on the mind and body. They are extremely against underage drinking of any kind, but this type of education needs to be paralleled with an even broader societal candidness that accepts alcohol as part of the culture.
The classic argument against the drinking age, or at least in favor of lessening the limitation to include those over eighteen year of age, is the inconsistency of rights granted at certain ages. At eighteen a person can vote for the leader of the free world and die defending his or her country. Eighteen-year-olds can smoke, gamble, and buy pornography. In the eyes of the law they are adults with complete sovereignty, yet they cannot enjoy a beer after a hard day?s work. Therefore, many argue for a drinking age of eighteen.
The intrinsic problem in setting any specific age is that completely restricting access to alcohol before an exact birthday is still avoiding the issue. Instead, we need to confront the issue of alcohol by letting it run its course in society and in the lives of our children. Kids will drink no matter what laws stand in their way and it is time we accept that fact. We should teach young adults how to drink responsibly instead of completely denying them access to alcohol. Young people need to be led away from environments where the consumption of alcohol is exciting for the illicitness of the deed itself.
Why is education so important? Because by over-protecting our kids, our culture makes alcohol mysterious and intriguing. Through education, kids learn what alcohol does to the body and why it is dangerous. They must also learn why it is a prominent part of American culture.
Why would this work? Because it works in other countries. Anyone who has been to Europe can attest to the fact that among college students and even high school students, drinking is no big deal. Students drink, but the binge drinking so common on college campuses in America is rare. Teenagers grow up in households where they can have a glass of wine with dinner, teaching them that alcohol can be enjoyed in small quantities, and not simply to get drunk.
There must be a strong focus on family. We must have open communication between parents and their children about drinking. There need to be places where young adults can meet safely under supervision. We need to get kids with kegs out of dirty basements and underage drinkers with ?40oz.?s? out of the alleys.
My view that kids should learn about alcohol by trying it must not be construed to include illegal drugs. They are simply not as prevalent in our society. Kids associate illegal drugs with criminals, not with their parents, as is the case with alcohol. It seems as though in school kids learn more about illicit drugs than they do about alcohol. Knowing the effects of drugs is important, but there is a fundamental distinction to be made. Parents aren?t telling their children ?don?t do drugs? while snorting lines of cocaine at social gatherings like adults are notorious for doing with alcohol (although there are exceptions). Kids see ads on TV depicting young, attractive twenty-something?s enjoying a night of alcohol with friends, and their favorite sporting events are sponsored by Budweiser and Coors Light. Alcohol is unique in the respect that it is so prevalent in American culture, yet so forbidden until that magic birthday of freedom. Therefore alcohol must be dealt with differently than substances illegal to everyone.
A sudden change in the law is not the answer. This would lead to a shock, which in turn would increase binge drinking and alcohol-related deaths among teens. First the laws regarding drunk driving must be more strictly enforced. This would set a precedent against alcohol endangering the lives of others, and promote responsible drinking. Next taxes on alcohol should be increased to make ?getting wasted? simply uneconomical. This would promote drinking in small quantities, just for the social enjoyment aspect of alcohol. Finally, the government should fund campaigns targeted at teens, which encourage mature uses of alcohol. These campaigns can be launched through television ads and in schools, and should also include information on how to identify possible alcohol poisoning and what measures to take in a possible case. Once kids are exposed to the idea that they can handle alcohol as long as they are careful, the laws should then be changed. To avoid a teenage free-for-all with alcohol, the drinking age should be decreased yearly, so that by the end of twenty one years there will be no laws in place restricting alcohol. This will put the power of discretion and the freedom we cherish in America, back in to the hands of the citizens. Greater pride for our liberties and accountability of the individual will be the final reward.