Two-Fisted Double Standards

It is the season when grownups wax hysterical and hypocritical on “teenage drinking.” After years of work in school drug/alcohol programs and in youth programs, and as chaperone at parent-sponsored keggers for high schoolers, I yearn for a few good prevention authorities to replace the current “teenage drinking” claptrap with some blunt talk.

Which is: adults of America, there is no “teenage drinking problem.” There is an “American drinking problem,” and the cause of it is you. Your teenagers don’t drink because of Budweiser bullfrogs, “peer pressure,” or “youth rebellion.” Teens drink because you drink. Socially approved, legal adult drinkers model their habits in front of teenagers in every conceivable locale.

There is no society on earth in which adults drink and teenagers don’t. There is no society in which adults don’t drink and teenagers do. There’s only one society that denies this crucial reality – ours. It’s no coincidence; America is the toughest nation on teen drinking and the most lenient toward grownups.

The major players – Joseph Califano’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the American Medical Association, Henry Wechsler’s student-binge alarmisms, Busch beer’s “stop underage drinking” ads, Robert Wood Johnson and Kaiser foundation reports, local “zero-tolerance” crusaders – never discuss the sobering reality I saw in my youth work or in the cold statistics: both the individual and society are safer, on average, when a high school youth drinks than when a 40-year-old drinks.

Check Highway Patrol and vital records. In California, the numbers are scary: even though middle-agers drink about as often as high schoolers, 40 year-olds are twice as likely to drunkenly kill and injure, and five times more likely to die from over-drinking, than are 17 year-olds. Nearly all the children and half the teenagers dying in drunken crashes are killed by “overage” drinkers – those 21 and older.

We claim to care about kids, slanting statistics and hyperventilating over the occasional teenage drunken crash while ignoring far more numerous ones caused by adults. We’ve got the perfect excuse for dodging tough issues: sure, some grownups abuse alcohol, but they started drinking as kids. If we just stopped every youth from drinking, alcohol abuse would disappear.

Society doesn’t work that way. It’s more realistic to argue that the only way to prevent teens from drinking is to stop all adults from drinking. If, as absurd American “research” claims, drinking while young makes one an alcoholic, every European would be an alcoholic. Instead, we envy the low alcohol abuse problems in Italy and Spain, where seven year-olds drink diluted wine and teenagers imbibe legally.

As James Baldwin observed, kids don’t care what adults say; they imitate what adults do. Nearly all teens with drinking problems come from families and communities whose adults abuse alcohol or drugs. Teenagers learn to drink from the example set by elders. But just try suggesting (as I did) that school administrators and counselors champing to impose “zero tolerance” and drug testing on students pledge to abstain from drinking and to take drug tests themselves. Or do adults need booze so badly we can’t set good examples? Get ready for creative excuses.

Wiser societies set tough rules for adult alcohol use and provide safe settings for children and teenagers to learn to handle drinking as they grow up. New Zealand has the right idea. Last December it lowered its legal drinking age to 18, permitted youth under 18 to drink in private and in public with parents, and sharply tightened drunken driving and highway safety laws. In the first four months of 2000, New Zealand experienced its lowest traffic death toll since 1964 – including a 20 percent decline in teenage fatalities.

Alcohol is too serious for prevention programs to continue indulging dangerous frivolousness about peers, frogs, and zero-teen-drinking fantasies that will never happen. Effective prevention recognizes that we can guide teenage experimentation, or we can force them to hide it from us. But we can’t stop them from trying adult habits.


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