Alcohol and Its Discontents

In a new study, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) discovered that college students drink a great deal. Is it any wonder? Harsh laws and draconian penalties have driven teenagers away from the watchful eyes of parents and responsible adults, and added the appeal of forbidden fruit to alcohol’s already timeless allure. Parents who teach responsible drinking are stigmatized or prosecuted, and cultural differences are discounted or ignored.

Laws and zero-tolerance policies aimed at appeasing an army of latter-day prohibitionists, politicians, and opportunists have dictated compulsory abstinence for young adults under the age of 21. No responsible adult would encourage binge drinking by young people, but the overwrought efforts to protect them from demon rum has accomplished little except to ensure that they remain forever children in a hermetically sealed world and insulated from real life. The combination of pent up demand, the first exhilarating taste of freedom, and prolonged adolescence readily accounts for so-called college binge drinking.

A spirit of Puritanism coupled with a low grade anti-capitalist fever flourishes in America, particularly around guilty pleasures like drinking, smoking, SUVs and businesses profiting therefrom. Recently Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse erroneously reported that “underage” drinkers between the ages of 12 and 20 consumed 25 per cent of all alcoholic beverages ingested in the U.S. It then reluctantly acknowledged that the true figure is closer to 11 per cent. Most of the “underage” drinking in America is done by young adults between the ages of 18 and 21 who are technically underage, but old enough to vote and serve in the military.

The NIH study proposes harsher enforcement and restricted access. But, as The Wall Street Journal has noted, the study doesn’t suggest the most sensible approach: make collegiate drinking safe and legal by lowering the age to 19.

Binge drinking became a “problem” in 1986 when the federal government forced all states to raise the drinking age to 21. When young adults are treated like hot house flowers–with alcohol completely off-limits to anyone under 21–it’s little wonder they have trouble learning to drink responsibly.

Winston Churchill said that his “rule of life prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and the intervals between them.”

In his will, John Harvard, founder of Harvard University, bequeathed “one half of my worldly goods” to the establishment of a college of brewing science, “confident that it will aid in the establishment of a better regulated and nobler commonwealth than has hitherto blessed this earth.”

Recent research by University of Calgary economist Christopher Auld indicates that light drinkers and teetotalers earn about 10% less than heavy and moderate drinkers. While warning against drawing any premature conclusions, Auld stresses that the “alcohol-income puzzle” has been “well known amongst economists for a decade.”

Lawmakers and educators should stop treating young adults like children and, like Churchill and Harvard, acknowledge the social and health benefits of responsible and moderate drinking. Nations that teach children moderation over abstinence, such as France, Spain and Italy, may have higher overall rates of alcohol consumption, but far lower rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases. Truth, reason and common sense, not hyperbole, harsher laws and tighter screws, are the antidotes for binge drinking.

One has to wonder: In light of the current anti-alcohol fervor on America’s college campuses, would either Churchill or Harvard survive a semester?

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