Friday, October 7, 2011

October Stein

October is chock full of holidays. Among the many are Columbus Day, Leif Erikson Day, and Coming Out Day (that’s the 11th if you’re interested). There is World Vegetarian Day, World Teachers Day, Skeptic Day, and Chocolate Covered Insect Day. The 28th is both Mother-in-law Day and National Chocolate Day (Celebrated how? Buy a box of chocolates and don’t give it to your mother-in-law?) It all culminates in Halloween, which, in the US, polls as the second-favorite holiday of the year. Additionally, there are month-long observances including Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish-American Heritage Month, and National Book Fair Month. Incongruously, it is both National Pork Month and Vegetarian Awareness Month. Not least, it is National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Month.

I suspect collegians are aware of alcohol every month, despite the 21-year-old drinking age. The insistence by older adults that under-21s should abstain is not taken at all seriously by the younger group. It is silly to expect that it would be. On the contrary the demand is counterproductive. Abstinence is a fine choice for some individuals in this as in other matters (I’m a near teetotaler myself), but we run into trouble when we try to impose it by force. When we turn something ordinary into an offence (say, drinking a single beer), we provoke “in for a penny in for a pound” excess instead.

When I was 18, the drinking age in the US varied by state or district. In NJ it was 21, in NY it was 18, and in some places (e.g. the District of Columbia) beer and wine were 18 while hard liquor was 21. By the end of the freewheeling 70s, the age had dropped to 18 almost everywhere. In NJ, a major motive for the drop was to discourage teens from getting drunk in NY and driving back. All this reversed in the 80s, and 21 is now the rule nationally. Raising the drinking age to 21 was intended to reduce alcohol-related road fatalities among young people, and proponents of the change point out that teen road fatalities indeed have dropped significantly since the 80s. The flaw in their argument is that teen road fatalities have dropped by the same amount in Australia, Canada, and the UK where the drinking age is still 18. Stricter traffic enforcement, harsher penalties, and safer cars rather than the legal drinking age appear to deserve the credit.

The prohibition of alcohol to 18-20 year-olds is counterproductive in ways that go well beyond auto safety. Precisely because alcohol is not readily available at any time, the young are very inclined to binge drink (defined as 5 or more drinks at one sitting) when they do get their hands on it. This is the pattern of drinking that is the most likely to lead to accidents, health problems and alcoholism. Bingeing actually was less prevalent than today in my college years when I legally could buy bottles from the liquor store literally next door to the dorm. That observation may be dismissed as anecdotal, but here is one that is not. There is an inverse relationship between consumption of alcohol and alcoholism at national levels; in other words, countries where people drink more per capita (e.g. Italy and France) have fewer alcoholics than countries where people drink less (e.g. Sweden, Russia, Ireland, and the United States).  [See] The reason is that binge-drinking is common in low-consumption countries and rare elsewhere. Two, four, or six glasses of wine will cause no problems if you spread them out over an entire day every day (the Franco-Italian manner). If, on the other hand, once per week you knock back six drinks at once (the Russo-American manner), you are loaded. A 200 pound man will be triple the legal limit to drive.

People are better off when they develop sane and safe drinking habits, but in the US we don’t give young people the opportunity to do it. I understand the reason. There always will be a connection between alcohol and tragedy. There is no getting around that, and it is natural for the rest of us to want to “do something,” even if it is the wrong thing. But Prohibition really is the wrong thing, as much for 18-20s today as it was for everyone else in the years 1920-33. Rather than unintentionally training young people to drink in the worst possible way as we do today, thereby making tragedies all the more common, we’d do better to encourage a healthier and less intense relationship – at a younger age – with the world’s favorite intoxicant.

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