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A new way of thinking about drinking: Use, not abuse


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Some years ago, I used to teach undergraduate freshmen. When the subject matter failed to fascinate, I knew that my flagging hipness would get a boost when the students found out that my other job was writing about beer.

Two questions always followed that discovery: "What's the best beer?" and "Can you get us some?" Then out would tumble a raft of anecdotes about underage boozing, fake IDs and drunkenness.

Faced with these sordid stories, I tried to present an image of non-hysterical but disapproving adulthood: Students, you know that what you're describing is a) illegal, b) dangerous and c) pretty stupid. Often the kids would, in fact, agree, but the conversation would quickly revert to hilarity-provoking tales of coerced drinking and throwing up.

With the return of the student population to the Triangle's colleges and universities—and the inevitable uptick in beer consumption—I'm reminded of the frustration I felt at the hypocrisy of those exchanges and how little of use I had to offer those kids.

First, the hypocrisy. Hands up, adult drinkers out there who waited until you turned 21 before trying alcohol. Hands up, if you've never overindulged. Hands up if you've never laughed at tales of drunken idiocy. Now, everyone else, hands up if you think your youthful overindulgence may have taught you something—even though you'd hate to think your kids could be learning about alcohol in the same way.

The belief that alcohol's primary function is intoxication is shared by two groups: prohibitionists and beginner drinkers.

For grownups who consume alcohol moderately—and especially for those of us who make our living off it—this Dionysian view of booze is such a threat that we can't acknowledge that alcohol has any mind-altering properties. We've become afraid that if we recognize the buzz that beer gives, or—heaven forbid—look forward to it, we've crossed over to alcohol's dark side.

We can admit that we drink coffee or smoke cigarettes because they change the way we feel, but not so alcohol. And, as for laughing at drunkenness, that has moved from prime time, when Dean Martin's martini-slurred speech was a staple of family-hour TV, to the realm of non-PC unacceptability.

Today, to laugh at alcohol craziness is to make light of alcoholism, domestic violence and lives cut short. But I don't think Americans of a generation ago were any less aware that alcohol abuse had horrible consequences: They just thought a tipsy Dean Martin was funny anyway.

So those of us who enjoy alcohol are forced to extol its qualities in pious euphemisms, lest we give the prohibitionists ammunition, or offend people who have been harmed by drink. Meanwhile, embarrassing all of us with their frankness, the novice drinkers are mooning the grown-ups with crude humor, experimentation and stories of excess.

What could we be doing to make this passage easier and safer for young drinkers?

If I were queen (a favorite fantasy), I'd first amend the drinking age. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries in the world that sets the drinking age at 21 (others include Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and United Arab Emirates). What that brings us is not a healthy delay of alcohol consumption, but its opposite.

The majority of countries specify 18 as the legal age to consume alcoholic beverages, which makes better sense. Given that 18 is the age at which American citizens can vote, serve in the armed forces, enter into binding contracts and be tried as adults, there's a welcome consistency there. It seems absurd that an 18-year-old can drop a bomb, but he can't hoist a beer.

As all-powerful queen, I'd also make sure that young adults who decided to drink had a better understanding of alcohol. There's a learner's permit for immature drivers, and boot camp precedes military service. But young people become legal drinkers with no training at all: After 21 years of strict prohibition, all it takes is one birthday to confer full access to the high-risk world of booze. How does that make sense?

What if that classroom of mine had been full of 18-year-olds studying alcohol? Not a course dominated by films of bloody car crashes and DWI court proceedings, whose central message is not to drink, instead of how to drink. This class would present the effects of alcohol both in moderation and in excess, its history, culture, spiritual roots and its manufacture in different forms.

Students could taste different varieties of beverage alcohol and learn to look for the flavor that comes with the buzz. Their final grade would reflect not only their understanding of blood alcohol content, but their appreciation of the time and place to enjoy a good drink.

Anything would be an improvement on the approach we take now.


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