When I turned 21, it felt downright bizarre to drink in public. So long had the stigma of doing something forbidden been attached to drinking, the idea that one random day in my life it should suddenly become A-OK still seems weird. Whether it was through older friends, peers with fake IDs, house parties or lax liquor store carding standards, finding a way to get drunk was never really a challenge.
I know you?ve heard this all in D.A.R.E., but binge drinking does have many unfortunate side effects. What you may not know is binge drinking is by definition only having more than four drinks in two hours for men, and more than three in two hours for women. I?d be surprised if the majority of those in the bars of Madison on a Saturday night haven?t surpassed this.
Understandably, the Madison authorities want to find ways to reduce college alcohol abuse. A new report from a community organization called Capitol Neighborhoods, Inc. recommends many financial incentives and enforcement measures to reduce underage drinking. As The Badger Herald reported Friday, these measures include raising taxes on alcohol sold in the downtown area of Madison by about 20 percent, having bars install electric scanners to check IDs and doubling the number of citations issued to underage drinkers.
But whenever new policies are being considered, it?s useful to foresee possible unintended consequences. For instance, if less people are in the bars and on the streets, it may encourage those who want to commit crimes since there is less chance they will be seen.
The likely effect of a slight increase in the alcohol tax probably won?t deter those who really want to drink. Additionally, the owner of Hawk?s Bar and Grill was quoted Friday in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying he considered that proposal ?elitist? because it would prevent less-well-off students from drinking while the affluent would continue doing so.
Bars and liquor stores downtown would probably lose revenue as the students migrate to establishments away from downtown that aren?t subject to the tax. More students (especially those underage) would probably throw more house parties, which would offer unlimited booze and provide ideal locations for alcohol abuse. Thus, this policy mostly amounts to passing the buck.
Instead of trying to end underage drinking completely, we should encourage moderation. Part of the reason students go overboard is that alcohol is so forbidden and stigmatized. If you have never drank before, and you?re in a situation where everyone else is getting wasted, there is going to be pressure to match your friends shot for shot. How can you be expected to suddenly know where your limits are if alcohol was completely forbidden through high school?
Paradoxically, the best possible solution to underage drinking may be to lower the drinking age. Anyone who has ever been to Europe knows that binge drinking there is far less prevalent, and it?s because teens regularly have alcohol with their families during meals. Alcohol must be something that?s recognized as a part of life that must be enjoyed responsibly. It should not be something that needs to be stamped out. As with anything that is forbidden, it just makes you want it more.
Until the drinking age drops, our culture needs to evolve toward an understanding that underage drinking isn?t going to end. Parents and authorities should teach responsible drinking to those who are going to do it. Penalties should be focused on those who drink irresponsibly, not 20-year-olds who just want to hang out with their friends at bars. Like the war on drugs and the war on teenage sex, the war on underage drinking is one that is bound to fail unless we realize that the goal must be moderation rather than elimination.
Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.