Which is: adults of America, there is no "teenage drinking problem." There is only an "American drinking problem," and the cause of it is YOU. Your teenagers don't drink because of Budweiser bullfrogs, "peer pressure," or "youth rebellion." Teens drink because YOU drink. Socially-approved, legal adult drinkers peddle their habit in front of teenagers in every conceivable locale.
There is no society on earth in which adults drink and teenagers don't. There is no society in which adults don't drink and teenagers do. There’s only one society that denies this crucial reality -- ours. It’s no coincidence America’s the toughest nation on teen drinking and the most lenient toward grownups.
The major players -- Joseph Califano's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the American Medical Association, Henry Wechsler’s student-binge alarmisms, Busch beer’s “stop underage drinking” ads, Johnson and Kaiser foundation reports, local “zero-tolerance” crusaders -- never discuss the sobering reality I saw in my youth work and cold statistics: both the individual and society are safer, on average, when a high school youth drinks than when a 40-ager drinks.
Check Highway Patrol and vital records. In California, the numbers are scary: even though middle-agers drink about as often as high schoolers, 40 year-olds are twice as likely to drunkenly kill and injure, and five times more likely to die from overdrinking, than 17 year-olds are. Nearly all the children and half the teenagers dying in drunken crashes are killed by “overaged” drinkers 21 and older.
We claim to “care about kids,” slanting statistics and hyperventilating over the occasional teenage drunken crash while ignoring far more numerous ones caused by adults. We've got the perfect excuse for dodging tough issues: sure, some grownups abuse alcohol, but they started drinking as kids. If we just stopped every youth from drinking, alcohol abuse would disappear!
Society doesn’t work that way. It’s far more realistic to argue that the only way to prevent teens from drinking is to stop all adults from drinking. If, as absurd American “research” claims, drinking while young makes one alcoholic, every European would be an alcoholic. Instead, we envy the low alcohol abuse problems in Italy and Spain, where seven year-olds drink diluted wine and teenagers imbibe legally.
As James Baldwin observed, kids don’t care what adults say; they imitate what adults do. Nearly all teens with drinking problems come from families and communities whose adults abuse alcohol or drugs. Teenagers learn to drink from the example set by elders. But, just try suggesting (as I did) that school administrators and counselors champing to impose “zero tolerance” and drug testing on students pledge to abstain from drinking and take drug tests themselves -- or do adults need booze so badly we can’t set good examples? Get ready for creative excuses!
Wiser societies set tough rules for adult alcohol use and provide safe settings for children and teenagers to learn to handle drinking as they grow up. New Zealand has the right idea. In December 1999, it lowered its legal drinking age to 18, permitted youths under 18 to drink in private and in public with parents, and sharply tightened drunken driving and highway safety laws. In the first four months of 2000, New Zealand experienced its lowest traffic death toll since 1964 -- including a 20 percent decline in teenage fatalities.
Alcohol is too serious for prevention programs to continue indulging dangerous frivolousness about peers, frogs, and absolutist teen-abstinence fantasies that will never happen. As with smoking, drugs, guns, sex, and violence, effective prevention recognizes that teenagers are not rebels, but conformists, to adult values and habits.