Understanding Alcohol Abuse
Underage Drinking

The "wets" claim that a uniform drinking age is responsible for the reduction in drunken driving seen after the U.S. adopted a national drinking age of 21, not the older age level itself. When drinking ages vary between states, youth often travel to across state lines to the state with the lower drinking age to get drunk-leading to an increased likelihood of drunk driving and to longer trips made by intoxicated drivers. From this perspective, the reduction in crash deaths seen after America adopted a national drinking age of 21 was caused by the elimination of cross-border traffic, where drinking ages varied, and not by fewer young people drinking and driving.

The "wets" also note that at the same time as the drinking age was raised to 21, national media campaigns simultaneously stigmatized drunk driving and pushed the idea of a "designated driver"-and that this, too, could have helped drive down alcohol-related crashes while leaving youth alcohol consumption rates untouched. In fact, this group claims that when underage drinking is illegal, it becomes more attractive to youth as "forbidden fruit" footnote icon. The need to hide drinking may also encourage youth to binge in order to reduce their chances of being caught in possession of alcohol

There is almost certainly some truth in both positions: a high drinking age may deter some people who otherwise would have drunk heavily from doing so, while pushing others to do so in a more dangerous manner.Either way, the fact that the vast majority of youth are drinking regularly long before it is legal to do so suggests that current policy is a failure at its intended goal of keeping alcohol out of the hands of most young people.

Zero Tolerance Policies
Throughout the 90s and the early 00s, fears about alcohol and teens were continually stoked by the media and by organizations with a stake in pushing the notion that drinking is a great danger to youth.

For example, there was the study - Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic - released by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) in 2002 claiming that people under 21 drunk 25% of all the alcohol consumed in the United States. This prompted dozens of headlines in newspapers across the country about a teen alcohol "epidemic" that year. (Unfortunately, CASA failed to take into account that the government deliberately over-sampled teens, and as a result its analysis misrepresented their proportion in the population.).

There were also numerous reports claiming that young people were increasingly engaged in binge drinking, many stemming from research by Henry Weschler at the Harvard School of Public Health. For example, the Washington Post headlined one article, citing the researcher, "Drinking Lessons; As Alcohol Problems Grow, Colleges Seek New Remedies" [4/16/02]. But these accounts rely on such a liberal definition of binging (which Wechsler himself promotes) that it includes those with blood alcohol levels (BACs) well below the legal limits for driving.

Rather than seeing a binge as being a spree of drinking lasting a day or more, as many people would colloquially define it, alcohol researchers have now classified a binge as being a situation in which someone takes "5 or more drinks on one occasion." This means that a college student who has a drink an hour during a long party-and never reaches intoxication-is a "binge drinker." Not surprisingly, this has lead to a majority of high school seniors and college kids being defined as bingers.

Given such studies and the increasing calls for action by activists and concerned parents, educators and policy makers decided that something had to be done. It was already illegal for teens to drink, so high schools began setting "zero tolerance" policies. These took off in the wake of the Columbine high school shootings, and targeted alcohol and drugs along with weapons, even though none of the school shootings were linked to alcohol or recreational drugs.

These policies meant that if a high schooler was caught-sometimes even off-campus-with one drink on one occasion, he or she would be permanently expelled. For example, in 1998, four teens from a Colorado school who had never been in trouble before, were expelled from their high school for having admitted to drinking in a motel room on one occasion. [Monument County Tribune, 10/1/98]. In another case, a California teen became suicidal after being expelled for drinking off-campus one day during his lunch hour footnote icon. He never completed high school. In some cases, the mandatory punishment is less severe: the teen is sent to treatment instead.

While the legal drinking age is a matter of debate amongst alcohol policy experts, even the most conservative alcohol policy groups like CASA do not support extreme zero tolerance, recognizing that expulsion from school does more damage to a kid's future than most drinking incidents do. Not only does expulsion give kids more time to drink (and a reason to drown their sorrows), research suggests that higher education itself reduces the odds of long-term alcoholism footnote icon.

Even mandated treatment poses problems if it is used indiscriminately. While teens with genuine drinking problems may benefit, those who were just unlucky enough to get caught experimenting can be harmed by being grouped with kids with more severe problems footnote icon. Forcing kids to admit that they are alcoholics in order to successfully complete treatment-as most teen treatment programs do-may also be dangerous. Telling teens, who are often confused about their identities to begin with, that they have the lifelong disease of alcoholism (which they are told, carries a 90% chance of relapse) can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Almost all experts now agree-from CASA to the ABA to the ACLU- that zero tolerance policies have more risks than benefits (though CASA supports tough policies if kids are given treatment, not expulsion). Drinking during the school day is certainly unacceptable; but not all underage drinkers are drinking for the same reasons: One kid may be an alcoholic, while another may have parents going through a nasty divorce, and yet another is a shy straight-A student trying to be more sociable. A school's response should take these circumstances into account and not sacrifice one child's future in hopes of deterring others.

There's just no evidence that supports a deterrent effect for these policies and a great deal which suggests that they can do harm. For example, researchers at Harvard's Civil Rights project found that high rates of suspension from school (which are linked with zero tolerance because it mandates such punishment for first offenses) are linked with high rates of juvenile incarceration. Previous studies found no evidence that zero tolerance policies improved school performance or atmosphere. footnote icon.

Policy Alternatives
So what does the research support in terms of policies and programs that reduce youth drinking and the harms related to it?

Some experts like Stanton Peele, author of the classic text, "The Meaning of Addiction" point to wine-drinking cultures like those in Italy, France and Spain for hints on how to handle alcohol policy better. In these cultures, alcohol is essentially a food-it is part of a meal and children learn to drink with their parents from a very early age. Drunkenness is not tolerated. Though rates of daily drinking are high in these cultures, rates of binging and other alcohol problems have, historically, been low. Alcohol itself is viewed as a neutral substance; it is drunkenness and not drinking that is seen as the problem.

In contrast, northern drinking cultures see alcohol as almost a mystical substance-with great power for good or ill. Drinking is an activity in and of itself; alcohol is consumed in bars not at family meals, and it is often positively associated with masculinity. In such settings, drunkenness is frequently the goal of drinking. Northern drinking cultures typically have lower rates of daily drinking but higher rates of binging, alcohol-related problems and complete abstinence. The U.S. has generally followed the northern pattern footnote icon.

Lately, however, drinking-to-get-drunk behavior has become popular in southern Europe (possibly as a result of large influx of young drink-oriented tourists from northern countries), proving that these cultures are not totally immune from alcohol-related problems footnote icon.

Nevertheless, the southern, demystified view of alcohol as part of a meal may be worth adopting. Viewing alcohol as a "demon" allows those who drink to excess to avoid responsibility for their behavior and place the blame on the substance. By contrast, seeing it as something most people manage responsibly re-enforces self-control.

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