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Modern Prohibition: Time to Eliminate the Drinking Age

by on January 05, 2016 6:00 AM
State College, PA

Within the last week our household celebrated two holidays that have a passing connection to alcohol.

One of these holidays was New Year's Eve and the other was our daughter's 21st birthday.

On a personal level our daughter's birthday was of great interest to me. New Year's Eve -- not so much -- as my wife and I tend to take it easy. We go downtown for the Resolution Run 5K, walk around gazing at the ice sculptures, then come home and turn in at 12:01 A.M. Little to no alcohol.

However, the 21st birthday "thing" -- the government's artificial coming-of-age rite of passage -- now, that has some fascination tied to it. Fascination in how we manage this archaic policy. And Happy Valley is a fantastic case study in the methods and madness associated with the national drinking age.

Why is that? Let's do a few cocktail napkin calculations and see.

There are 40,500 undergrads at Penn State. Although it's not an even distribution among the classes since some freshman and sophomores leave school and branch campus transfers come in their junior year, let's just say there are 10,000 juniors who will turn 21 in any given year. As the undergrads are mostly in town only eight months out of the year, let's factor out a third of them, leaving us 6,600 21st birthdays to celebrate.

In the local population, there are approximately 7,200 students in the elementary, middle, and high schools, so we'll say 600 in each grade. Half of those stay in town after high school, so add another 300 locals to the 6,600 Penn State students and call it an even 7,000 people who turn 21 in Happy Valley every year.

Pennsylvania's population is 12,787,000. About 1.2 percent of that total, or 154,000 people, will turn 21 this year.

But in Happy Valley, with a population of 90,500 (the Borough and College, Ferguson, Patton, and Harris Townships), 7.7 percent of our population turns 21 every year -- more than six times the statewide average.

This concentration of youth provides bucolic Happy Valley with a significantly greater level of experience dealing with individuals celebrating their coming-of-age birthday than any other place in the state, and provides the perfect test market to examine the success, or failure, of various restrictions bars enact regarding how you can be served on your 21st birthday.

Some local bars won't serve you at all when the date changes at midnight. Some only allow you to drink beer, not hard liquor. Some will only serve you one drink. They adopt and enforce all these and other rules in an effort to reduce their liability and deal with a problem created by an antiquated law. A law based on the premise that alcohol "is a vile drink that turns even the most respectable men (and women) into complete scoundrels." Yet, none provide the desired result of reducing alcohol issues.

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a fan of legislating to the lowest common denominator. It's as if you have 100 employees, 99 of whom keep the company kitchen clean. But rather than deal individually with the one who does not, you send out mass emails and notes reminding everyone to wipe up their splatters in the microwave, remove their old food from the refrigerator, and clean up their plates and utensils when done.

It's a bad way to handle human resources and an even worse way to generate laws.

Now, I can certainly appreciate special interest groups pressuring politicians to pass useless or bad laws. I've sat in legislative offices listening to individual stories of woe which could be miraculously remedied with proper legislation. And no special interest will get a politician's attention faster than a call to keep our children safe.

My personal belief is it should be a rule that legislators who vote for a new law be required to spend one week enforcing said law. It might cut down on wasteful lawmaking and possibly even result in (we can only wish!) law deleting.

As this relates to the drinking age, we have an arbitrarily determined age of 21. Yet 30 percent of highway deaths have long been and continue to be attributed to alcohol. Alcoholism continues to grow. Over 50 percent of 18 to 22-year-olds drank alcohol in the past month. Clearly decades of age-limited prohibition hasn't worked.

This might have been obvious since the original Prohibition not only didn't create an alcohol-free society, but spawned unintended consequences such as the growth of organized crime. Some even blame the Great Depression on it. I know no one who considers 1920-1933 the "good ole days."

That's the glitch with restrictions. We're Americans. If someone tells us we can't do something the first response we have is: "Yes we can!" The storyline of the underdog is almost a national symbol of our conscious. Why would telling us we can't drink until we're 21 be any different?

Even more vexing is the federal government's own admission – via the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – that moderate alcohol consumption (up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men) may have beneficial effects on health. These include decreased risk for heart disease and mortality due to heart disease, decreased risk of ischemic stroke, and decreased risk of diabetes. They estimate that tens of thousands of deaths per year are averted in this country because of reductions in these diseases due to moderate alcohol consumption.

All of which means almost 100 years of alcohol restrictions in this country and a variety of micro-managed solutions here in Happy Valley have not solved any issues with it and possibly made them worse.

So imagine this scenario instead – no age-limit on the consumption of alcohol. Instead of telling our young people we can't trust you with this demon alcohol, and elevating it to must-have obsessive status, we remove its forbidden fruit prestige and make it the same as buying coffee. The youth of America can try alcohol at whatever age they want – and find out exactly how vile-tasting most of it really is. Then they'll be in no rush to try to acquire a taste for it and peer pressure is eliminated because anyone can get it.

We send a message to young people -- who have finely tuned BS detectors -- that we do trust you, and back up our words with actions. Have faith in the quality of the children we're raising and set the stage for a lifetime of responsible consumption.

And years from now people in Happy Valley will look back, recall those weird prohibition laws, talk about the ancient rituals folks engaged in on their 21st birthdays, and wonder how anyone ever thought that was good for society.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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