Drinking culture is continually a controversial subject in the United States. It permeates the American media, yet remains taboo to discuss at the same time. You see movies where college parties have alcohol flowing like a river current, making it seem “cool” to drink under the legal drinking age. This has informed high schoolers and undergraduates that start drinking frequently, years before the legal age. Fake IDs are common and most often lead to a slap on the wrist when used at bars and clubs. But when it comes to the actual discussion about alcohol and the current drinking age, it suddenly becomes an issue of how alcohol “is bad and dangerous.” This back and forth relationship allows the substance to continue to be stigmatized and leads to the damaging drinking culture in the United States. Rethinking the solution to the current culture of binge drinking in adolescents needs to be addressed. The way to do that is first and foremost to change the long-debated legal drinking age.
I was compelled to write about this issue as my fortune of traveling around the world has shown me many treatments to alcohol culture. Throughout my travels, I have been to multiple countries where the drinking age is 18. I have had calvados in Normandy, Guinness in Dublin and sangria in Madrid, all without the notion of drinking to “get drunk,” in these locations that don’t stigmatize drinking. Through my travels, I have seen why the drinking age of 18 has no effect on the actual act of drinking.
This is in great part due to the culture in those regions. Alcohol is not treated as a “dangerous substance,” but rather as a celebrated part of the region’s heritage. When I was in Dublin, I hoisted pints of Guinness with the Irish while listening to incredible pub music. In many European countries, the culture is partially rooted in the alcohol of the region. The wine in Paris has a different story than the wine in Normandy and it is viewed in a decadent and savoring way that American culture completely lacks. Alcohol here, especially for young adults, is treated not as a pairing for a dinner, but as a mechanism to get you drunk fast, So why is American culture set to abuse alcohol?
One of the big factors is rooted in the openness of drinking within the states. This is something I believe Americans are good at for all the wrong reasons. One of my frustrations with the perceived norm of drinking in the United States is to treat the action as a competition of who can drink the most in the least amount of time and get the drunkest. We use it to get sloppy, sloshed, wasted, no matter what you call it, it is downright extreme compared to the one glass of wine at dinner that is standard in Europe. Rather than discussing the flavors that are in a good liquor, the culture surrounding America, particularly underaged adolescents is to drink until sick at college parties.
The taboo nature of alcohol leading to underage people abusing the “scandalous” and illegal substance creates a culture of normalized alcoholism, and it has become a standard in the youth of America that grow to continue seeing alcohol in such an extreme light. This is in big part influenced by inflammatory media, modern movies and popular music. In such outlets, drinking is seen as “cool,” and not drinking violates some sort of social contract. This shaming continues the cycle of drinking with the established norms of alcoholism in America. This fact adds to the reason why the drinking age being lowered will, in fact, flip the mindset on alcohol.
Thinking about culture and openness, I believe there is a very logical reason to lower the legal drinking age to 18. At 18 you are currently allowed to smoke tobacco, can own a car, enlist in the military and own certain firearms, all enormous, and arguably, adult responsibilities. And yet for some unknown reason, you cannot drink. The drinking age was set at 21 in part to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, blackmailing states into raising the drinking age or, they would lose funding for federal highways. And there is validity to the health of the adolescent’s brain development when using alcohol. But having the current legal drinking age be so high has created a culture of excessive underage drinking.
The age is not the issue. How we as Americans approach drinking is the fact that needs correction. If you are old enough to serve and die for your country, then you are old enough to make a logical and capable decision to drink responsibly or irresponsibly. The problem has never been the age. Simply by raising the drinking age, the act of drinking illegally becomes more tantalizing. Media recognizes this and feeds into this notion and adolescents are more dangerous with the substance than ever. We can no longer fight the perception of alcohol in the 21st century like we would in the 1980s. We live in an era of technology and instant communication. Information is at our very fingertips. With this power, we can make a positive change on the societal view of alcohol, create a culture and heritage that understands the higher purposes of drinking and we can rewrite the reality of getting wasted as the ultimate goal.