Dry Fog

Zero tolerance and the "underage drinking epidemic"


"Children Drink 25 Percent of Alcohol Consumed in the U.S.," announced the headline of a recent press release from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The startling figure was repeated by CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, and other news organizations.

Then it turned out the number was wildly off. Through "an oversight," CASA had failed to take into account the oversampling of teenagers in a government-sponsored survey. With proper adjustment, the number indicated by the survey data was actually around 11 percent, less than half CASA's estimate.

This embarrassing error brought some well-deserved scrutiny to CASA, described by The New York Times as a "widely respected antidrinking organization." Unfortunately, it overshadowed the deeper problems with CASA's report on "America's Underage Drinking Epidemic."

To begin with, many of the "children" suffering from this "epidemic" are actually adults. That is, they are 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds, legally permitted to do just about everything that requires a certain level of maturity–vote, live independently, get married, enlist in the armed forces–except (as the president's daughter discovered) order a margarita. As soldiers risking their lives for our country, they can carry machine guns, but they dare not touch a bottle of beer.

When the government raises the drinking age, the "underage drinking problem" increases by definition. If the drinking age were 30, the problem would be much bigger than it is now, but the problem would be the law, not the desire of 25-year-olds to enjoy a glass of wine.

CASA's bizarre insistence on treating 20-year-olds like 2-year-olds–it refers repeatedly to "children under the age of 21"–colors everything it has to say about "underage" drinking. So does its utterly unrealistic, counterproductive goal of eliminating all drinking by teenagers.

Although it absurdly likens drinking by people under 21 to "a deadly round of Russian roulette," CASA generously concedes that "adults' alcohol use in moderation is acceptable and relatively safe." But since it urges parents not to tolerate any drinking by their children and calls for legal penalties against those who do, it's a mystery how anyone is supposed to acquire habits of moderation.

Conspicuously missing from CASA's list of recommendations to parents is any mention of teaching responsible drinking. Presumably this is because such instruction requires gradually introducing children to alcohol in a controlled environment, which contradicts CASA's dogmatic opposition to any drinking by people under the age of 21. CASA views all such drinking as a kind of disease (part of an "epidemic"), regardless of its context or consequences.

Well, not quite. CASA grudgingly allows that underage drinking might be OK when "it is a basic component of a particular cultural event or religious ritual." This is not very reassuring, especially when coupled with CASA's implicit criticism of state laws that "limit police authority in investigating a home where underage drinking is suspected."

Who decides when drinking has enough cultural or religious significance to justify letting the kids imbibe? Not their parents, it seems. They are "too often unwitting co-conspirators who see underage drinking and occasional bingeing as a rite of passage."

In addition to condemning parents who allow their children to drink, CASA seeks to delegitimize manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. "Since most heavy and problem drinkers begin drinking before they reach age 21, underage drinking is the key to the profitability of the alcohol industry," CASA says. "Underage drinkers and heavy drinkers combined consume 61 percent of the alcohol sold in the U.S."

This assertion rests on CASA's bogus consumption estimate and a logical fallacy: The fact that heavy drinkers tend to start drinking as teenagers does not mean they would disappear if everyone could somehow be prevented from touching alcohol until his 21st birthday.

If anything, that expectation contributes to alcohol abuse and the harm it causes by pushing drinking underground. When teenagers drink on the sly in unsupervised settings, they are more likely to drink excessively, more likely to drive while intoxicated, and less likely to seek help when someone needs it.

The question is not whether teenagers will drink. They always have, and they always will. Three-quarters of Americans are drinking by their senior year in high school.

The question is how teenagers will drink, whether they will do it excessively and recklessly or in a manner that minimizes the risk to themselves and others. On this crucial point, CASA has nothing useful to say.