Writing in Time, John Cloud notes that "the U.S. seems to be in the midst of one of its periodic alcohol panics, this one focused on adolescents," even though drinking by teenagers has been declining since the early 1990s. "The data indicate there are fewer young drinkers," Cloud writes, "but a greater proportion of them are hard-core drinkers." He blames "the all-or-nothing approach to alcohol" that prevails in the United States and makes the case for "the Southern European model of moderate, supervised drinking within families":
The way to produce fewer problem drinkers is to create more drinkers overall—that is, to begin to create a culture in which alcohol is not an alluring risk but part of quotidian family life….There's evidence that drinking with your kids—not buying them alcohol for a party but actually drinking with them at home—is a good way to teach responsible drinking behavior.
In one study, for example, teenagers who drank with their parents (as opposed to getting alcohol from their parents for unsupervised parties) "were about half as likely to say they had drunk alcohol in the past month and about one-third as likely to say they had had five or more drinks in a row in the previous two weeks." The researchers concluded that "drinking with parents appears to have a protective effect on general drinking trends."
But Cloud notes that "social host laws," which hold adults criminally responsible for underage drinking on their property, discourage the modeling of temperate drinking. He laments that "we are encouraging kids to leave their homes (presumably by car) and drink in parks or abandoned warehouses or anywhere else they think they won't get caught and their parents won't get arrested."
The article, which quotes addiction psychologist and reason contributor Stanton Peele (who pointed it out to me), is worth reading in full, not least for the calm, measured tone we have not come to expect from newsweeklies on subjects like this.
I discussed zero tolerance and the "underage drinking epidemic" in a 2002 column.