Responsible Drinking is Not a Product of Age

by Etoile Pinder | 11/21/97 6:00am

I've been a bartender for slightly over 4 years and have seen a lot of drunk people. I've noticed something about them too -- the most irresponsible, "dumb" drunks are not necessarily the youngest. I live in a country where people start drinking openly at an early age and most of the teenagers there are amazed at the stupidity of visiting teenage Americans. The reason? We're more "educated" in the drinking culture. Most of us have gone to bars or drunk with our families from the age of 13 or 14. Having observed and experienced the effects of alcohol for three or four years before the age of 18, we tend to laugh or shake our heads in pity at the ridiculous antics of our same-aged American friends. Don't get me wrong, though, when we first started to drink we were fools too. Which is my point. The less you know about alcohol consumption the more dangerously you do it.

People seem to think that by 21 a person in the U.S. drinks more responsibly than an 18-year-old because they've reached the magical age when everyone turns into a mature member of the community. No. It's true they're generally more responsible, but it's because they've been drinking illegally for at least three years so have learnt some things about alcohol's repercussions including the fact that a hangover is a very unpleasant experience; drinking 'til you can't stand up is "bad"; and losing your ability to make rational decisions can have devastating consequences. Age can occasionally be useful as a general indicator of experience level (a person in their 50's has had more experiences to learn from than one in their teens), but within the small gap between 16 and 21 it's not useful for anything.

The whole concept of basing a person's ability to be a responsible drinker on a pre-selected age is, for lack of a better word, silly. Lowering the age limit is not the solution because there are a wide variety of age limits which exist worldwide, yet, unsurprisingly, worldwide there are still problems with young drinkers. I pondered this all for a while and came up with a "drinking license."

A 16-year-old who has studied the theoretical aspects of driving and been trained how to drive by a more knowledgeable person will drive better than a 21-year-old who has never seen a car. I feel the same thing applies to drinking. A person should be made to study the effects alcohol can have (physical, emotional, mental, social, etc.) and only be allowed to initially participate in the actual action of drinking in a controlled, restricted environment. To be allowed to go to a bar, or buy liquor from a store, a person must first obtain their "liquor license." The test would not include a "practical" part to demonstrate your ability to chug beer, but would be a written test to demonstrate your knowledge of alcohol and its consequences.

There is, obviously, a problem with this analogy -- car accidents still occur all the time. Yet, imagine how many more would occur if all you needed to drive was a birth certificate saying you were 21. SMASH!! That's what happens now with regards to alcohol. Something needs to change. My license is just to show there are alternatives. It has its flaws, but it couldn't be worse than the death and ruination which result from the current laws.

Dartmouth College is currently in the process of changing their alcohol policy so as to comply with the law which went into effect in 1990 demanding colleges to impose federal and state under-age drinking laws on their campuses. In an attempt to do so Dartmouth's College Committee on Alcohol and Other Drugs came up with the recommendations which would free Dartmouth from the threat of reduced federal aid and liability in other areas. Sadly, at the same time they will be turning their "high risk" environment into a "deadly" one. It appears that Dartmouth prefers to go along with existing laws which have documented dangers associated with them instead of making a stand and admitting the fact that there is a problem with those laws. During the alcohol panel session held in Cook there was talk of changing the status quo. They were talking about the tiny little status quo existing here at Dartmouth. Our "high risk" environment is just a reflection of a problem existing on a much grander scale. They're treating a symptom, not curing the disease. We need to broaden our views beyond kegs, CFSC and Safety and Security, because if things are to improve, influential voices such as Dartmouth's must speak out.