Teaching Temperance

I want to buy a bottle of Scotch, but the State of Virginia is making it difficult. In New York City, where we lived until a few weeks ago, there were several nearby liquor stores whose proprietors would have been happy to help me. Virginians have to make do with the scarce, inconspicuous outlets operated by the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

The ABC stores were closed on July 4, and they'll be closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day, presumably because those are occasions when people like to buy liquor. As a native of Pennsylvania, which also has state-run liquor outlets, I'm familiar with this reluctance to do business. The deliberately inconvenient distribution of liquor (which is harder to find in Virginia than guns or fireworks) reflects America's peculiar ambivalence toward alcohol.

The lingering influence of the fears that led to Prohibition can also be seen in attitudes toward "underage" drinking. Most Americans drink, and they can usually tell the difference between moderation and excess, prudence and irresponsibility. But they tend to abandon those distinctions when they consider people who haven't yet reached the magical age of 21.

A recent survey by the Associated Press found that two-thirds of Americans support the current legal drinking age, which every state has had since the late 1980s as a result of federal pressure. This means a large majority of the population thinks it makes sense to deny adults--people who are legally allowed to marry, vote, sign contracts, and enlist in the military--the right to have a beer.

Barbara and Jenna Bush's brush with the law in Austin, which highlighted the absurdity of this policy, does not seem to have made much of an impression on the public. To me, it's obvious that something is wrong when a 19-year-old can be charged with a crime (and subjected to intense media scrutiny) for ordering a margarita. Most of my fellow Americans apparently disagree.

Indeed, the A.P. poll found they favor even stricter enforcement of the law. An easier and more sensible way to reduce the problem of underage drinking would be to reduce the drinking age. Then what Barbara and Jenna did would not be considered cause for police intervention.

As for younger drinkers, a less absolutist, more realistic approach is long overdue. Nearly three-quarters of high school seniors admit to drinking in the past year, and half say they've consumed alcohol in the last month. Less than 2 percent report getting drunk every day, but about one-third say they've been drunk in the previous month.

In other words, drinking is normal behavior for teenagers, but few could be described as heavy drinkers. At the same time, many consume enough alcohol to get into trouble if they do it in the wrong place or at the wrong time.

This is a situation where adult guidance could make a crucial difference. Kids need to know how much is too much, when it's dangerous to drink, and how to recognize when someone is developing an alcohol problem. Instead they get a "zero tolerance" message that equates use with abuse.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (which runs that state's version of Virginia's ABC stores) urges parents to "discourage alcohol use by those under 21," adding that "it's a crime to sell or give alcoholic beverages to anyone under 21--even your own kids." Leaving aside the astonishing presumption of this attempt to interfere with child rearing, it's hardly reasonable to expect people to suddenly know how to drink responsibly when they turn 21 if they've had no experience with alcohol until then.

Yet that is what the government officially expects, even though most politicians surely did not wait until their 21st birthdays to have their first drink. This stance is worse than hypocritical; it's deadly.

When college students drink, they're breaking the law, so they do it on the sly. Instead of drinking on campus at supervised events, they go into town and drive back drunk; some don't make it home in one piece. Many teenagers have never been told how much alcohol a human can safely consume in one sitting, so they kill themselves in reckless drinking contests.

The point is not that teenage drinking is never a problem but that it isn't always a problem. Any serious attempt to reduce the damage alcohol can do has to start by acknowledging that fact.

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