The Legal Drinking Age in different Countries

Teach the young to handle drink

The fact that under-aged drinking is getting worse shows that something is seriously wrong with America’s approach.

The conventional reaction to drinking by the young would be a call for more measures to deny them drink – more policing, more fines, raise the minimum age, don’t serve beer at functions. I would suggest the reverse – teach the young to handle drink.

Start this early and by the time they come of age, they will know how to hold their liquor. For alcohol is an inescapable fact of adult life like sex, guns, marriage, gambling, driving, work, entertainment. If we are concerned enough to prepare our children for these other aspects of adult life, why not alcohol? Our young face it in the workplace, at home, in the coffee shops, at functions, at weddings. They are the staple diet in corporate and campus rituals.

And we should not mix this up with drugs as the media appears to do. Drugs are a no-no for everyone – both adults and children. So it is easy to preach abstinence. But try doing it for alcohol when your cellar is full of wine and your fridge full of Fosters.

The laws in some states like Florida, that raised the drinking age to 21, also reveal wishful thinking. If the average age of entry to university is 18 do we seriously believe that university students aged 18 to 20 will attend the same functions , frequent the same joints and sit by while their over-21 colleagues enjoy themselves? And shouldn’t we free law enforcements officers from the unnecessary activity of nabbing underage drinkers when they have more serious business to do? And why do we distrust the ability of the young to be more responsible. Don’t we trust them with cars at 16, guns at 18 and all kinds of dangerous jobs below 21?

Even worse is the attempt by Christian groups to distort the scriptures by claiming that the wine referred to in the Bible is grape juice. Would the Pharisees have called Christ a wine-bibber if he was turning water to grape juice and drinking of it?

Is it any wonder that this law is laughed at, that even newspaper columnists reveal that they have allowed their children to drink in their presence rather than drive them underground, that even our President’s daughters have been guilty of underage drinking, that scores of students travel to more liberal states and countries to drink?

For proof of this liberal approach that I recommend, we need to take a look at how different cultures handle alcohol. The Jews and Italians have one of the highest alcohol consumptions rates per head, yet the incidence of alcoholism and binge drinking amongst their young is far less than in other cultures. I feel it is because of their healthy and wholesome approach to alcohol, in particular wine, which is such an inextricable part of their religion and cuisine.

Jewish and Christian scriptures extol the virtues of wine in moderation as a social lubricant, for religious rituals and even for health benefits but also warn about the dangers of excess. From the time they are about 12, children in these cultures are taught by adults directly or through role modeling on how alcohol should be consumed – in moderation, with meals. In addition, the fact that children see both men and women drink means that drinking is not seen a macho activity, that they can drink and taste a little means they don’t grow up treating it as forbidden fruit or a necessary evil or have to hide from parents when they want to taste wine.

Compare this with societies that have an ambivalent attitude to alcohol, treating it as a necessary evil, like the Anglo-Saxon societies of Great Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand with their Puritanical foundations, and South Asian and Middle East societies where the cultures make the young feel that alcohol is something inherently bad, yet allow it as a necessary evil. The young are therefore denied access to or knowledge about alcohol and learn about it from peers, seek it as forbidden fruit and in the absence of moderating adult influence, invariably drink to excess. Years of total denial followed by total freedom at 21 mean a mindset of catching up. Binge drinking is therefore a major problem in Anglo-Saxon cultures with their history of swinging between total prohibition and grudging tolerance .

The UK’s Telegraph reported in 20 August 2002, a study by an industry watchdog, The Portman Group, that said that “peer pressure, promotions and documentaries glamorizing alcohol had led to an increase in binge drinking with almost a fifth of people aged 18 to 25 going out with the primary aim of drinking to excess.” This is also reflected in their inconsistent and odd drinking laws, which America has unfortunately inherited – odd closing times, rules against children in pubs, rules against alcohol on particular days or places. In Australia, I could not be served beer at a bar on Christmas Day, in Canada, I couldn’t bring my 12-year old daughter for a lunch even in the outdoor terrace of a pub yet I could go next door to a restaurant and get drunk, in Florida I couldn’t buy beer from the supermarkets on Sunday or before 9 am , nor could I bring beer cans to the beach on any day.

South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures have a similar attitude to alcohol, made worse by the fact that because their women are not allowed or expected or encouraged to drink, drinking became a rite of passage for boys and remains as a perpetual proof of manhood.

In East Asian societies, alcohol has similar auras of manhood surrounding it, with wedding functions requiring the groom to hold his liquor and business deals sealed with who can down the most. The Straits Times of Singapore of 15 August 2003 reported that “Alcoholism has become a major social and medical problem in China, and it is spreading quickly among the young…Alcoholism is most severe in Shandong, the North East and Inner Mongolia. There the tradition of forcing colleagues, friends and guests to drink is a root cause of alcohol abuse among officials and businessmen”. .

So what should we do? We should certainly stop the double standards of being alarmed about the young drinking and yet as adults, continuing with cultural and other traditions that give them the wrong signals. Schools should have alcohol appreciation courses and prepare them for the drinking culture of the workplace. Homes should teach children about the pleasures and dangers of alcohol, guided by their own religious leanings. Our laws, inherited from our Puritanical founders, need to be changed. Why can’t pubs be places for the family? Why not allow the young in if accompanied by parents or other adults?

In America, in recognition of the potent power of peer pressure and the futility of prohibition, a “social norms” campaign has been launched in universities, not to teach the young not to drink but to drink in moderation by showing that the large majority of their peers consume far less than they might think and therefore they are with the in-crowd. There has been some success in some of the largest universities in the US such as the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina.

Whatever we do, one thing is certain. If you don’t teach the young to drink, they will learn it anyway but in their own and usually wrong way.

So deny and be damned.