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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

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2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

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2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

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Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


April, 2006

Mixed Messages

I went to an "Underage Drinking Town Hall Meeting" this week. It was one of hundreds held across the country, part of the Surgeon General's "Call to Action" on underage drinking. The meetings were organized nationally, but they were done locally, without a nationally-imposed agenda. That worked out well in Bensalem Township, where I attended: the Township is one of two Pennsylvania communities doing a trial of "social norms marketing" to deal with underage drinking. It's a program I am very much in favor of, the same kind of program that has been successful in reducing smoking. 

I had gone prepared to do battle with the militant forces of neo-prohibitionism, toting flyers I had run up presenting arguments in favor of the 18 LDA, and some truthful graphs about the decline of underage drinking (it is NOT an epidemic). But these folks were mostly, almost exclusively, concerned about high school-age drinking, and we're in agreement on that, mostly. So I relaxed, and I was feeling good about my locale. 

Until the DARE officer got up to speak, that is. He was in full fig, navy blue uniform, holstered 9mm (which always pisses off my daughter; "Dad, the DARE officer wears his gun right in the school! He shouldn't do that!"), bristle moustache and roach-slicked hair; the only thing he was missing was the chewing gum. He immediately took the "I know more about this than you civilians" attitude, talking down to us as if he had The Word on how things should be done to Stop Drinking Now. 

And then he started talking about what a bad idea it was for parents to allow their own kids to drink in their own home, "Because that sends a mixed message. That tells your kid that it's really okay to drink, and that you don't have to obey the law when you don't want to. That's wrong, and that's dangerous."

Leaving the whole issue of The State Knows Better Than You Do alone for now, why is the message that Super Trooper is putting out any less mixed? It's against the law and dangerous to have one drink 20 years, 364 days, 23 hours, and 50 minutes past midnight on your birthdate, even if your own mother hands it to you...but it's suddenly perfectly okay to go out on your own and have as much as you want only ten minutes later. Well? Is it illegal and dangerous, or is it legal and acceptable? Take your time, but we'll need an answer before ten minutes is up.

That's a lot like the "mixed message" we've been getting on drinking since Repeal, which is, by the way, the occasion for this Buzz. We're celebrating the 74th anniversary of New Beer's Eve, April 7, 1933, when beer-drinkers got a head start on Repeal. The laws that enforced Prohibition were changed to allow so-called '3.2' beer to be sold, and Americans celebrated with one of the biggest beer parties in our history. 

There were some great focused messages that day.

Beer is illegal and bad? No, beer is legal, and fun! 

That is, as long as it's no stronger than 3.2% ABW, because that 3.3% stuff is illegal and dangerous. 

Well, until NEXT YEAR, when it's legal and fun again! 

Um, sorry, unless you happen to live in a state or community where it's still completely illegal and dangerous because of local option laws. Until you get a referendum and change the law, that is...

And this guy thinks a parent letting a kid have a beer with dinner is a mixed message? Ha!

There was just an article in the Wall Street Journal about mixed messages in sex education classes. Don't have sex till you're married, kids are told, but here's how you do it and here's how to use common birth control methods. So now some folks who really don't want kids to have sex till they're married think that saying "Save it till you're married," while concurrently showing the kids how to do it safely, is a mixed message: by showing them how to do it safely you're essentially condoning it. These folks are generally portrayed as theocratic-leaning yahoos...while anti-boozers who spout what's essentially the same message about alcohol -- we don't want you to drink it, and we aren't going to tell you the truth about it -- are progressives who are trying to protect your children.

My response to Sergeant DARE would be that if parents trying to teach their kids how to drink responsibly -- in a family setting, with a meal -- are giving their kids a "mixed message" about drinking and the law, then the problem is not the parents, it's the law. Legal drinking age laws are inherently prone to the mixed message, so long as they do nothing but simply prohibit drinking until someone's birthday. In fact, it is possibly the very worst way to do it, practically encouraging people to abuse alcohol. On cynical days I wonder if it's purposeful; so many of the alcohol laws on the books seem aimed at forcing drinking into bad behavior...but that's a subject for another Buzz, another time.

If age-based prohibition doesn't work, what is the message we want to get across, a message that is consistent with reasonable age limits on drinking? How about this: drinking is a normal human activity that can be delicious and enjoyable, but it has some aspects that can be potentially harmful and even life-threatening to you and others around you if you mis-use it, so once you're old enough, we'd like to teach you how to enjoy it safely...a policy that's only a few words away from what's commonly accepted as good practice on teaching kids about safe sex.

Come to think of it, it's also real close to what we tell kids about driving: it's fun, it's useful, but it can be really dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, so we're going to teach you how to do it safely...and then test you to make sure you get it, and you won't be legal till you pass the test. 

That sounds pretty reasonable to me when it comes to driving, and it evidently sounds good on drinking to some folks in Vermont. Roughly, they're proposing putting young adults through a 40-hour training course, and then giving them a "drinking permit" that would allow them to drink at age 18, which sounds like one of the best ideas I've heard in quite a while. I'm still running down details on that; when I get them, they'll show up on my Legal Drinking Age page, along with some other new stuff, including a copy of that flyer I made up.

Is there a mixed message in that proposal? Let's see: drinking is something you need to be old enough to do, AND something that requires some knowledge and experience to do safely. Sounds pretty good to me: about as non-mixed as you can get on such a complex topic. And it's a much better answer than what's being shoved down our throats now.

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: May 02, 2006