Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Survey results: One third of Grits readers say 'Underage drinking for me but not for thee'

In a sense, the results of Grits reader poll last week about underage drinking surprised me. I'd posted the two-question survey after publishing this essay arguing that the legal drinking age should be reduced.

Nearly 500 Grits readers responded to the first of two questions on the topic: "Were you of legal age when you first drank alcohol?" An overwhelming 89% of you replied "No," meaning your first drink was actually a criminal act.

That's an overwhelmingly high figure; this wasn't a scientific poll so I don't know if those results are typical, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are.

However, that's why I'm a little surprised that answers to the second question - "Should the drinking age be lowered to 18?" - were split more or less down the middle, with 55% answering "Yes" and 45% answering "No." (In an informal survey like this that's a statistical draw.)

To judge by these data, give or take a few percentage points (slightly fewer respondents answered the second question), about one-third of Grits readers said their own first drink of alcohol was a crime but they don't support reducing the drinking age.

"Underage drinking for me but not for thee," appears to be the approach implied by these figures.

I've got a few questions for readers who answered that way: First, do you think of your own underage drinking as a criminal act? Do you think you'd personally have been better off if you were arrested and prosecuted for underage drinking? If not, why would you advocate that result for others?

Don't you think the fact of drinking's illegality makes it less likely a teen will talk to their parents or other authority figures if they have a drinking problem? Wouldn't you prefer your kids felt free to seek help when they're too drunk to drive or struggling with alcoholism? Do you want them hesitating to make a phone call that could save their life because they fear criminal sanction?

Finally, if you did not feel compelled to obey this widely flaunted law as a teen, why do you now believe your kids will, or anybody else's? Indeed, when adults told you not to drink, did that make you more or less likely to do so?

I'm not trying to be a smartass in asking these questions, I'm hoping readers who answered that way can help me drill down to understand their thought processes. On its face, these answers appear to evince a double standard. Explain to me please, those of you who adopted those positions: How can this be justified?


Anonymous said...

I noticed this too, and it's quite revealing about why our alcohol and drug laws make no sense.


Anonymous said...

Well, lets just say I view things differently at 38 than I did at the age of 18. I drink occasionally now with a meal; however,when I was 18, I drank strictly for the purpose of getting drunk and having a good time.

Alcohol is not the only thing I did at 18 that I don't want to legalize now.

Anonymous said...

You forget that the drinking age was not uniformly raised to 21 until the early 1980's. Many of your readers in their late forties and older, like myself, started drinking (legally) at 18. You had a flawed survey design.

Anonymous said...

I think it's more of a realization that they made a mistake, and many (like me) were lucky not to have gotten in much more trouble as a result.

"Learn from my mistakes" isn't quite the same as "do as I say, not as I do," after all.

Don said...

I don't really understand why it's so puzzling. Why should the fact that I started drinking at an early age suggest that I think it's ok? I did many things in my youth that I don't condone today. Actually, I voted (in your poll) to lower the age to 18, but not necessarily because I think that's a good thing. I just think the arguments against it are full of hypocrisy. In other words, your arguments for it make more sense. I would probably prefer that people never started drinking, but that's not reality. Given the way things are, I think it would be more fair to standardize the drinking age with the voting age, marrying age, military age, etc. Frankly, I don't think it has much effect on the big scheme of things one way or the other.

Anonymous said...

marrying age

Is that the spiritual marrying age, or the legal marrying age?

Around here, you gotta' be specific on this or txblues will call the CPS on you.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Wow, some of y'all have utterly forgotten what it was like to be 18 years old. Amazing.

To 5:13, what makes you think other 18 year olds don't view things just like you did? If they do, why do you believe the law will keep them from drinking?

To 5:23, the question merely asked if you drank before you were legal. If the MLDA were 18, the question as posed still applies.

Don, when you say the arguments against lowering the drinking age are full of hypocrisy, that's partially what I'm getting at with this question. That's precisely why IMO your question, "Why should the fact that I started drinking at an early age suggest that I think it's ok?" answers itself. You're telling kids it's okay "for me but not for thee." I say that acknowledging you did not answer the poll in the way I critiqued, but surely you see the hypocrisy evident even in the way you pose the question? Any 18 year old would.

Rage, "Learn from my mistakes" in this context is exactly the same as "do as I say, not as I do," at least for the third of readers who answered that way. Why shouldn't teens get to make their own mistakes? To judge by the survey results, virtually EVERYBODY disobeys this law - as far as I can tell nobody is learning from anybody's past mistakes.

I think it would be helpful if folks who drank before they were legal but oppose lowering the drinking age would try to answer the followup questions in this post. Other than just restating "I don't want it," I really don't understand folks' reasoning.

Anonymous said...

OK, Grits. Unlike other commenters, I don't have a holier-than-thou attitude toward underage drinking, and I think U.S. drug policies are a tragedy and farce.

I just think 21 seems like a fairly reasonable age to allow people to legally purchase and consume a variety of substances. I also think that alcohol regulation is a fairly acceptable model of how to regulate a substance (as compared to blanket prohibition). Also, the new brain research indicates that at 18 the brain is much less developed than we once assumed. So, that was my rationale when I hit "no" on the second question. You could probably argue me out of it if I knew more about the horrors of underage drinking and other policy ideas for how to reduce alcoholism in the U.S. generally and specifically among young people. (I confess: I answered your poll w/o reading your no doubt persuasive blog posts on the topic.)

Anonymous said...

Grits: I think Anon at 5:13 succinctly makes our point. Just because we did it, doesn't mean it was right, and doesn't mean we should be OK if our kids do it.

You may not remember this, but like you I grew up in Tyler, and started drinking at 12 when I would ride my bike to the bootlegger's house behind Putt Putt and Hickory Fare BBQ.

And, I have caught my oldest drinking (empty bottles, anyway), and stomped on him for some time as a result. He has a good future, but he just wasn't old enough to screw it up by drinking and making stupid decisions as a result.

As for your questions:

First, do you think of your own underage drinking as a criminal act?


Do you think you'd personally have been better off if you were arrested and prosecuted for underage drinking?

No, although I was smart enough never to drink and drive. I know people who would have been better off, though, and several of their victims in car wrecks and date rapes would have been better off.

If not, why would you advocate that result for others?

I don't believe in incarceration for drinking alone. I do if they drive, or injure others in any way. Just like any adult. But a kid is more likely to make those mistakes while drinking, because they're too young to make better decisions.

Don't you think the fact of drinking's illegality makes it less likely a teen will talk to their parents or other authority figures if they have a drinking problem?

Perhaps. It's not like adults with problems own up to it at a high rate--they have to get busted driving, or hurting someone else, or pissing their life away, before the get treatment. So I'm not sure a kid would seek help any more than adults do.

Wouldn't you prefer your kids felt free to seek help when they're too drunk to drive or struggling with alcoholism?

I told my son that if he was ever somewhere like that he could call me and I would pick him up and that he would not get in trouble. That I wouldn't even ever talk to him about it, just come get him and thank him for calling me instead of doing anything else. But adults have far more options to take instead of drinking and driving, and they still get behind the wheels at an alarming rate. I'm just not sure that lowering the legal age would change the way kids act, if it doesn't alter the way adults act.

Do you want them hesitating to make a phone call that could save their life because they fear criminal sanction?

Actually, fearing criminal sanction would be why they made the phone call--to keep from driving and getting arrested. But I know what you mean, and like I mentioned above I think the way to handle it is as a parent, no matter what the legal age is.

Finally, if you did not feel compelled to obey this widely flaunted law as a teen, why do you now believe your kids will, or anybody else's?

I presume they will not. That's why I dig in their business, and tell them to call me and I will not punish them in the least.

Indeed, when adults told you not to drink, did that make you more or less likely to do so?

Me? Neither. I was so young when I started drinking that my parents hadn't even thought about talking to me yet. And, like most kids, they don't do it because it's illegal, they do it to get drunk. That's why I did it. Hell, I didn't even like the way most of it tasted, but drank it anyway knowing that after a few I wouldn't care about the taste any more. So I just don't think legal v. illegal is the issue for the most part.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a double standard in the survey results.

Maybe we should get away from the double standard issue of drinking to the more important issue of public policy.

Is there anything wrong with younger people drinking? I say no. I grew up in an Italian household, and we drank wine with meals. Younger kids had their wine watered, and older kids drank full strength. I believe that the matter of fact acceptance of wine as a part of the family meal prevented alcoholism.

But can it go wrong? Of course. I argue that we should not outlaw for all what is harmful for a few.

Next is peer pressure. In the Navy, getting drunk on liberty was a powerful peer group pressure. I suppose the same is true in high school or the frat house.

I argue the law cannot be used to overcome peer group pressure. The result is not to correct excessive drinking among young peers, but to criminalize the young. I don't see any good public policy served by this.

So responders here regret their youthful drinking. As W. C. Fields said "The trouble about not drinking is that waking up in the morning is the best you will feel all day."

In other words, relax. Let others discover themselves as you did. Tell me one good thing criminalizing you would have done for you, Texas, or the USA.

W W Woodward said...

I was considerably smarter when I was 18 than I am now. I was running a risk of jail and/or fine back in the early 60's but was too smart to care. I know better now but also understand that the underage drinkers are a lot smarter than I am.

When you're 18 you are as smart as you will ever be and no amount of unsolicited advice from older folks will ever actually make a difference in your decisions. After all, "things are different now".

Anonymous said...

In regard to the original question by Grits, It's a common human trait. They value their own sense of judgment over that of their children.

It's quite a common attitude that shows up with regard to many human opinions. For instance, most people think all politicians are sleazebags, except for their own representatives.

Anonymous said...

Making criminals out of our youth is truly bad public policy.

There are ways to put social pressure on youth that do not include ruining their lives with a criminal record.

Surely in the 21st Century we are capable of more than throwing children in jail when they make mistakes!

TxBluesMan said...

It's not a matter of being hypocritical, it's a matter of realizing that we all made mistakes in judgment at a young age.

Jonathan said...

Wow, I'm very surprised at the comments to this post. I would like to look at this dilemma from another angle and that is if you feel that a 18 year old is not competent enough to determine for themselves to whether or not they are doing the right thing when it comes to drinking, should they still be allowed to vote? and should they be allowed to fight in wars?
I am of the opinion that if you're questioning their judgment in one regard you are questioning it in all regards.

Anonymous said...

First I must set the record straight. I took my first drink before I was 21 years of age. However it must be stated that under Texas Law "underaged" drinking is not illegal under some circumstances. For instance if an 18 year old female is married to a 21 year old male it is legal for the wife to be served alcohol in the presence of her husband. Additionally it is also not illegal for a person under the age of 21 to drink alcohol if that person does it in the presence of his/her parent(s).

Now, for the real stinger. Under Texas law Minor in Possession or a Minor Consuming alcohol is a Class C Misdemeanor. This is the equivalent of a traffic citation. Persons caught committing this type of crime face a maximum fine of up to $500 but it is normally much less. The penalties are far less if the offender takes some alcohol safety classes online or in a real classroom. Even if a person has been drinking and is under the age of 21 and is driving a car the penalty is still a Class C misdemeanor. This crime is called DUI minor. A minor normally will be charged with DUI minor if they do not meet Driving While Intoxicate criteria. Can a person be arrested for a Class C offense? Yes, of course but normally they are cited and released to their parents, but if they are arrested they may have to sit in jail for a few hours at most and overnight at the maximum in most counties in Texas.

Do I want alcohol to be legalized for people under the age of 21? No, but I think that there should be some more exceptions such as on military bases and such.

Do I think that minor youth related alcohol offenses should be treated as serious criminal offenses? Of course not. It is a status offense and no worse than a traffic ticket. I believe legalizing alcohol would be extremely dangerous for people under the age of 18. At least with the current law they have to limit their consumption or be prosecuted or pay some stiff fines.

I know and have worked with prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and other officials that were charged and convicted of minor alcohol status offenses when they were young. It happens and it is a VERY forgivable crime in adult life. So please don't believe that these young people are being thrown in prison for having a beer, that would be highly incorrect and would be irresponsible to say so.
As a peace officer I have had to write numerous tickets for these types of offenses in the hopes of curbing flagrant violations of the alcohol laws. Did my actions stop underage drinking? Of course not, but it did limit it in some regard and I believe that I have saved young lives. The alcohol laws in Texas are for the good of minors and for the most part very well written.

Now if you want to know what is also the truth, alcohol laws for people that provide alcohol to minors are extremely stiff unless you fall under an exception.


Chapter 106 of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code has all of the status offenses related to persons under the age of 21. The offense of DUI Minor is in this code and is not to be confused with Texas' Driving While Intoxicated law which is under Chapter 49 of the Texas Penal Code.

I hope this clears things up.

Anonymous said...

We dont prosecute the drinker here in the UK, we prosecute the person who sells the alcohol or buys it for an underage person. There is no point prosecuting a teen for drinking, when they are unable to pay a fine, and why send a person to prison for just 1 drink?

Did I view myself as breaking the law when I bought my first drink in a pub aged 15? Yes.

I dont see why a legal drinking age needs to be set, especially here as 14 year olds can drink with a meal. But I DO think the driving age should be raised.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sunray, deputylastrides is right that they don't go to prison for underage drinking. But he also understates things to refer to what happens as just writing a ticket and pretending it's inexpensive. Officers routinely use their discretion to arrest underage drinkers, not just ticket them. And the revenue generated from this process is not insubstantial.

OTOH, what you're missing, deputy, is that your actions aren't "limiting" underage drinking, just driving it underground. Will a drunk minor whose friend is passed out drowning in her own vomit be more or less likely to call for help because of the MLDA? I think the answer is less likely and such negative incentives IMO don't protect anyone. They reduce communication about addiction and substance abuse when more openness might save lives.

Finally, I agree that these are small-time penny ante laws whose violation is easily forgiven as adults. The corollary to that observation, though, is that they could also be forgiven easily NOW. If 89% violate it, it's not really limiting much.

To 6:11 - we don't rely on that brain science for anything else in the justice system. Youth are sentenced as adults, e.g., and you get prosecuted as an adult at age 17. Also, the point made above by someone else about judgment is worth repeating: If their brain is too immature to make this decision, why should 18 year olds be allowed to vote or serve in the military. Isn't good judgment important there, too? I think that's an interesting discussion to have, but the science is not entirely in and IMO it'd be premature to apply that reasoning to this one, narrow issue without extending the analysis about brain science and youth into other areas of the law.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan nailed it, as did a couple of others.

If 18-yr olds can vote and die in war, they should be able to drink.

And, if you criminalize their drinking, they are more likely to do so underground, which makes it more likely they will experiment with illegal drugs. Alcohol is far more of a "gateway" drug than marijuana anyway, this only exacerbates it.

The current effort to lower the age back to 18 is being led by college officials who have been observing the epidemic of binge drinking on campuses close up.


Anonymous said...

Grits for Breakfast,

I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. I am sorry, but I suppose that most of the kids I knew where of higher moral fiber than the children of which you speak. I have had kids report serious crimes and risk being ticketed for alcohol consumption. If there is a serious incident going on any peace officer worth their salt is not going to worry about a class c misdemeanor anyway. Bigger fish to fry as the saying goes.

Yes it is true that people can be taken to jail for underage drinking status offenses. Normally however, in most jurisdictions they are let go with a citation. A person can be arrested for numerous small offenses such as a turn signal violation, license plate lamp, expired inspection sticker, changed lanes while unsafe, and the list goes on. However is this common? Of course not. I do not believe that this law drives kids underground it just limits their behavior. Can the police storm into a home without evidence, warrant, or exigent circumstance? Are we going to get a search warrant for a class C misdemeanor? Of course not. So it is not like we are storming into people's houses SWAT style because little Johnny got into the liquor cabinet. However sometimes we have to break up illegal drinking parties but we normally just show up and stop everyone that tries to run out. Got to admit, whenever the police show up they all run out of the house which is a sight to behold I tell you. Anyway I digress.

A Class C misdemeanor is a crime where incarceration is not a possibility for a SENTENCE unless the person wants to sit out their fine in jail. So even if they are arrested for a status offense they have to be seen by a judge at the most 24 hours. That judge has to set a reasonable bond for release, and usually (almost always) they are released on their word that they will return to court.

Also, you said that these laws inhibit communication about addiction. Every time one of these kids commits an alcohol offense they are required to attend alcohol classes which show them where to get help for such addictions. These are things that they would normally not know if this were legalized.

I believe that we have to agree to disagree, but I must point out most humbly my friend, the law favors my position.

Good sparring with you!

Anonymous said...

I was once taken to jail for drinking at the age of 17. I wasn;t even drunk, had just opened my first, and blew a 0 at the station.

In the army during the 80's and 90's, it was quite easy, and legal to drink ON POST if you were 18 years old. They changed this in 1990, to follow local laws, except overseas where any and all could drink at the enlisted club.

I have to follow the enlistment thought process. Any person that is capable of raising their right hand and utters the words "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.." should not only be allowed to drink, but should be told to do so for defending some of the dumbest laws on the planet...

I took my first drink at 14, MD 20/20.. I think I saw god that day, or might have just some dude named Jesus from Monterrey...

Anonymous said...

Grits, Lastrites a quick pointer for you. I used to work for an American Motor Insurance Company ad on reviewing cases for Applications for motor insurance I noted that some cases on the Motor Vehicle Report which lists driving convictions I noted that there were cases which were loaded for "MIP" when I checked with the stateside office, They confirmed this loading was for "Minor in possesion" and the loading would apply even if there was no use of a vehicle!

Don said...

I'm kinda surprised that nobody came up with this, but there is widespread belief among substance abuse professionals that an argument against lowering the age is alcohol affects younger persons' judgment more quickly and acutely than older people. Now, don't kill the messenger. I am an LCDC, and I don't necessarily buy into it. I think it's mostly MADDness. It's surprising how credulous people are when it comes to MADD propaganda.

Don said...

Scott: Re: Hypocrisy. I used to be a Republican. Now I'm not. Hypocrite, or what?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don wrote: "Re: Hypocrisy. I used to be a Republican. Now I'm not. Hypocrite, or what?"

Don, that would only make you a hypocrite if you turned around and supported laws prohibiting others from joining the GOP now that you made the personal decision to leave.

Anonymous said...

An attorney friend of mine once told me that law school teaches one to speak from all sides of one’s mouth, and believe each argument. That has been the best default explanation I can use for stuff like TYC, the Great Polygamist Roundup, and for criminalizing social problems such as underage drinking in the 18-21 age range, as well as marijuana use and prostitution as a provider service.
Prostitution in the bible belt being criminalized is one of my favorite hypocrisy’s, since prostitution in the bible is the basic framework for the service provider model. Although those bible thumping supporters in the bible belt don’t really read their bible much or they would know that if it were not for the prostitute as the service provider model there would be no lineage for Jesus, Yehuda & Tamer as well as several others in the linage moving forward. From my experience I think the same must be true for bible belt seminary schools as well.
You called it right Grits, “Underage drinking for me but not for thee”
Respectfully Sheldon

Anonymous said...

I drank before age 21, I had boys who drank before age 21. Two of which drank legally due to age limits on military base being 18. We at least were able to discuss it and one joined AA as he had an addiction to it. I know we have always been able to discuss anything together without feeling dred of punishment and this may have helped us in some ways. But anything that opens the door to communication for parents is a good thing. I am now 60 and the boys are in thier 30's and 40's and thier children have been treated as they were and often will stop in to discuss options for thier lives with me as well as thier parents. So I think lowering the age is a good thing.

Don said...

Yes, but Scott, remember I don't advocate laws stopping others from doing the same thing I did. Quite the contrary. What I said was, I don't necessarily look at teen drinking as a good thing. But things are what they are, and I would vote for lowering the age. And that is based largely upon the sensible arguments that you and others put forth. Let me agree with you, will ya?

Anonymous said...

Grits, we're taking an exercise in sophistry (or something)...I support full majority, at either 18 or at 21, no split majority allowing some things but not others. This is hypocrisay writ large.

Anonymous said...

I think most parents did things in their youth that they realize, as adults, was not healthy, and they therefore don't want their kids to make the wrong mistakes. What is wrong with that?

The last time we lowered the legal age of drinking in many states in this country, I was all for it, for many of the reasons you now hold, Scott. Go take a look at the history of that, and you may understand why the age went back up to 21 in most states.

Anonymous said...

I am more concerned with the people who sell to minors, than I am with the minors themselves. Perhaps we should keep the age at 21 and more vigorously pursue those who sell to underage persons.

If you lower the age to 18, many high school seniors would be able to legally buy booze, thus making it much easier for youth under the age of 18 to obtain it.