Uhlir: High Age, High Risks

by Tadeas Uhlir | 11/2/15 7:00pm

Dartmouth students are often said to live within a “bubble,” and this often insular environment means an outside perspective can be extremely useful. Perhaps the biggest and thickest bubble around here, though, is not just limited to campus — instead, it is the larger American bubble.

While I cannot speak necessarily speak for everyone, as an international student the most striking aspect of life within this American bubble has been the drinking culture. It seems the prevalence and enthusiasm for high-risk drinking is enormous and alcohol-induced vomiting — “booting” — is very common. While I come from the Czech Republic, which has the highest consumption of beer per capita in the world by far, and I certainly enjoy having an occasional drink, I have never seen such high-risk alcohol consumption before. The problem, I believe, is that the legal drinking age of 21 years old is higher than almost anywhere else in the world.

In this case, it seems stricter is not better. Youth drinking is essentially inevitable, and the appeal of a forbidden fruit is simply so irresistible that it’s almost unbelievable that any law would eliminate underage drinking. The question is how can we reduce, rather than eliminate, the risk of underage drinking. The best solution is to introduce adolescents to alcohol in a safe environment — which is what usually happens in the countries with lower legal drinking age, such as my home country. Many people in Europe start to drink when they are in high school and — at least in my experience — high school partying hardly gets too wild. Parents are glued to their phones checking on their kids every 10 to 15 minutes, people start leaving at 11 p.m. because of their curfews and many partygoers stand around awkwardly as they have never been out before. Lower rates of self-reported intoxication in some European countries seem to confirm this impression.

Now, compare this image to an average Dartmouth party. While I will restrain myself from describing the party scene, I do want to point out that none of the signs outlined above are present. Simply put, learning to drink is like learning to ski — you start on a hill with barely any slope, not on a mountaintop cliff on a in the Alps.

Second, the problem with such a high drinking age is that by the time they make it to college, some misguided students aim to black out on their first few nights out. This likely comes from the perception that alcohol is meant to mess with your head, and hence one must always desire to experience inebriation to its fullest effects. Most people who are already familiar with the effects of alcohol, however, often agree that the best experience is not achieved when one can no longer walk. In the United States, parents, college administrators and even government officials try to explain this to students, but nearly everyone must experience it to truly understand. It is safer to experience this during your 18th birthday party with your friends — and possibly even your parents — than in a fraternity basement surrounded by strangers. Overall, my impression is that in the people in the U.S. often drink for the sake of getting drunk as quickly as possible. Outside of the U.S., people seem to drink more to get in the mood — some quirky individuals even drink just for the taste of it. I would argue that the latter is preferable.

This is not just my impression, however. The statistical evidence is in resounding support. While Europeans tend to drink much more per capita, they experience fewer alcohol-related deaths — excluding the former Soviet republics — than Americans, according to the World Health Organization. This contradiction should serve as a warning sign to the American government, but, surprisingly it often goes undiscussed. Similarly, the economic harm per capita of alcohol consumption in the U.S., as estimated by the WHO, is higher than the weighted average. The cost in America is more than two times higher than the costs per capita in France and Scotland.

The solutions to many of the social problems America faces are quite literally beyond the border. Yet inside the American bubble, policymakers often ignore outside evidence. A July 2014 Gallup poll found that 74 percent of Americans continue to oppose lowering the drinking age to 18 — somehow, legislators and the public alike have fallen victim to the false assumption that stricter means safer. Looking abroad suggests that the country needs to reconsider its views.