Back in 2010, I took my non-drinking ideals overseas when I studied in Belfast, Northern Ireland for a semester. I was twenty years old at the time, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I faced my share of name-calling and ridicule when I ordered tap water at every pub I visited. But this may surprise you: the only people who mocked my decision to abstain were Americans.
Minutes into my first Irish pub, two students from Sweden asked me why I wasn’t drinking, and I braced for the usual insults. But when I announced my Straight-Edge lifestyle, they approached me with genuine interest and inquiry, eager to understand my reasoning. It wasn’t just the Swedes, but all Europeans who respected my choice; even the Irish themselves (often stereotyped by Americans as relentless drinkers) proved open-minded.
If lawmakers truly want to protect America’s youth, they need to abolish the drinking age and trust that Americans will approach the newly-demystified alcohol with a greater degree of responsibility.
Yet, for as tolerant as my European classmates were, I couldn’t say the same for some of the Americans, who exported their exalted attitudes toward alcohol. Even though college students could legally drink in Ireland (the drinking age is eighteen), my American classmates still glorified the act of drinking alcohol and nagged me, just as my friends back home had throughout my teenage years.
Funny how the country with the highest legal drinking age generates the most immature attitudes toward alcohol. Now, there are multiple reasons for this. On one hand, the age limit transforms alcohol into forbidden fruit, catching the eye of every Adam and Eve in the garden. On the other hand, by forbidding twenty-and-unders from drinking, American law belittles its young adults and convinces them that they’re still entitled to act like kids. Ban a teenager from drinking responsibly and you’re inviting him to drink recklessly.
Now, some will say that we need a drinking age in order to protect America’s youth. These neo-prohibitionists will cite the idea that the sooner a person starts drinking, the more likely he or she is to develop alcoholism later in life. Sounds like a valid point, but the age limit isn’t protecting the kids it’s meant to protect. Many gradeschoolers have easy access to alcohol, and the illegality factor might just nudge their rebellious spirit enough to make them dig into dad’s liquor cabinet or experiment with friends in the woods.
If lawmakers truly want to protect America’s youth, they need to abolish the drinking age and trust that Americans will approach the newly-demystified alcohol with a greater degree of responsibility. Sounds ridiculous? Tell that to the growing number of teenagers who devote themselves to healthy exercise and calorie-counting. With the increasing focus on self-image and health, it’s no stretch to suggest that such teens would eschew binge drinking once the “rebel” label is stripped from every bottle of booze.
And while we’re on the subject of drinking in excess, consider that binge drinking would also wane: rather than teens cramming down as much alcohol as they can at an unsupervised Saturday-night ripper, they can drink whenever they want — without the motivation to be an outlaw and overdo it. Of course, some will continue to drink in excess, but such is the case with anything people can abuse. At least if the drinking age is eliminated, teens will have one less reason to push their limits. And imagine this: the idea of alcoholism would no longer carry its rebellious connotations, but instead be seen for what it truly is — an unfortunate, miserable situation.
Naysayers will argue that America’s youth is too immature to be trusted with alcohol. This may be true, but only so long as minors continue to believe that drinking transforms them into weekend renegades. Would alcohol still maintain its mystique if your twelve-year-old sister could order a beer with her pizza? Would legally buying a six-pack at a grocery story garner the same bragging rights as stealing that same six-pack from mom’s fridge and sneaking it into the weekend dorm party? What would happen if teen drinking became just another mundane activity?