LETTER TO THE EDITOR
This letter appeared in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on 21 September 1997.
This item may be cited as M. R. Franks, Letter to the Editor: Our Drinking Laws on Minors Must Change, New Orleans Times-Picayune, September 21, 1997, at B6.
Copyright © 1997, M. R. Franks
You won't find college students dying of binge drinking in England, Italy, Germany or anywhere else but in the good ole U.S.A. But where else in the world do they expect kids of 18 to fight and die for their country and to be mature enough at that same age to get married, hold credit cards, exercise the franchise and run the country - but not to drink?
By what logic are persons competent at 15 to drive vehicles that kill but incompetent until 21 to handle even one beer?
Our liquor laws make drinking a rite of passage to adulthood, fostering rather than discouraging teen alcohol consumption. We set kids up for an "I'm 21 now, so gimme my sixpack" mentality.
We make it illegal for kids to serve an apprenticeship in responsible drinking, virtually ensuring that what little instruction they get comes from their most immature peers in the high school parking lot rather than from family members seated around the dining table at home.
Then we wait until three years past voting age to thrust these ill-prepared drinkers onto the bar scene, equipping them well with vehicular horsepower but poorly with sober wisdom.
Jewish children traditionally have a glass of wine as part of the religious ceremony accompanying the Friday evening meal. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Jewish families have very little alcoholism and almost no teen-age drunken driving.
Many European countries permit minors accompanied by a parent to enjoy a glass of wine with a restaurant meal, typically beginning at age 12. In France, Germany, Italy and Spain, a young adult of 16 may buy wine or beer unaccompanied by a parent, whereas the drinking age for distilled beverages in Europe (and throughout most of the non-Islamic world) is 18.
By the time a young European is old enough to drive a vehicle (at a sensible 18, certainly not at 15), he or she already has had some experience with responsible drinking and, more important, alcohol already has lost some of its allure.
Dodi al Fayed's chauffeur notwithstanding, drunken driving is rarer in Europe than in America. The auto fatality rate in England, for example, is half that of the United States - this is on a per capita basis adjusted for population differences.
But then, Europe doesn't labor under the delusion that the best way to stop drunken driving is to deny people alcohol. Most other countries simply punish drunken drivers. Severely. How sensible! Why has that idea not been implemented here?
America's puritanical, prohibitionist mentality has created a serious drunken driving problem. When we raised the drinking age to 21, we exacerbated our teen drinking problem. Now we seem headed down the same road on tobacco as well: prohibit the activity rather than discourage it, thereby making the activity a badge of adulthood, setting the stage for a teen black market.
I can't believe that the alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries don't know exactly what they're doing: suckering well-meaning but naive legislators into enacting cosmetic and often draconian prohibitions intended to fool the masses into believing that something is being done, while at the same time actually promoting rather than discouraging teen consumption.
Isn't it time we raised the driving age, lowered the drinking age and repealed unwise laws that prohibit kids from learning to drink in moderation under supervised apprenticeship within the family? But that's the problem, isn't it: Moderation just does not inhere in our national psyche, so neither will moderation be found in the halls of Congress or in our state legislatures.
The harvest of our shortsighted mindset is binge drinking in college, alcoholism in adult life and increased carnage on America's highways.
M. R. Franks
Professor of Family Law
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