Vodka in Vermont: Stop Binging and Start Drinking

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Vermont, the first state to offer civil unions to gay couples, looks to take the next step toward becoming a national trendsetter by being the first state since the passage of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act to lower its drinking age from 21 to 18 under certain circumstances.
State Senator Hinda Miller proposed a bill that may result in a lower drinking age in the state. However, instead of jumping straight into the decision of whether to lower the drinking age, Miller’s bill calls for the establishment of a task force to weigh the pros and cons of such a decision.
Federally collected statistics show that the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act has been ineffective in preventing underage drinking. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ 2006 National Survey, more than 28 percent of individuals between the ages of 12 and 20 reported drinking alcohol within a month of when they were surveyed. Even more troubling is that according to the HHS’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed through binge drinking.
The link between underage drinking and binge drinking is clear considering the three prevalent ways that underage drinkers obtain alcohol.
First, underage drinkers have someone purchase alcohol for them. In countries like China, Portugal and Switzerland, teens can legally purchase alcohol, but parents often do the purchasing simply because they are the providers. Alternatively, when teens in the United States ask adults to buy alcohol for them, the illegal factor inherently makes the scenario more stressful and tempting. After all, if you have to badger your older brothers or sisters for three hours in order to get them to buy alcohol for you, why settle for the six-pack of Bud Light when you can get completely wrecked with a bottle of 80-proof Smirnoff?
Second, with the rise of the Internet, underage drinkers no longer have to sneak into dark alleys to get fake IDs. Although the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on Web sites offering fake IDs for sale, Web sites often have loopholes around the FTC’s authority, such as advertising their IDs as novelty items. Still, when underage drinkers use fake IDs, they face a $500 fine and hours of community service. Because of this risk, the perceived need to buy as much alcohol in as few purchases as possible acts as a direct gateway into binge drinking.
Third, underage drinkers who were blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) by puberty and appear older can try to pass for 21. This technique may result in binge drinking because of the temptation factor in finding a seller who does not ask for identification. While punishment for using a fake ID may be severe, punishment for selling to underage drinkers is worse. Those who sell alcohol to people below the age of 21 may have their liquor license revoked and face heavy fines, essentially putting them out of business. For this reason, when an individual is “lucky” enough to pass for 21, exploiting the failure of the seller may be the next logical step.
Giving 18-year-olds the option of buying alcohol would remove these barriers and give underage drinkers a choice about drinking responsibly. They would no longer have to talk others into buying alcohol for them, use unethical methods to purchase alcohol or be tempted into buying more alcohol than necessary. Furthermore, the act of lowering the national drinking age would force parents to play bigger parts in their children’s relationship with alcohol. Currently, with teenage alcohol consumption being illegal, no law-abiding parents can condone their teens using alcohol. By lowering the drinking age, parents would have the opportunity for dialogue about drinking responsibly.
Since its passage more than 20 years ago, the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act has been credited with some progress in reducing the harmful effects of alcoholism. However, the legitimacy of these statistics remains questionable at best. For example, in a 2004 document released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency estimates that since 1975, minimum drinking age laws have saved 23,733 lives. Yet with little else revealed in the document, how exactly the NHTSA came to this conclusion remains a mystery.
With more than a quarter of U.S. teens taking part in underage drinking – mostly through binge drinking – even the most adamant supporters of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act must admit that it has failed to some extent. Therefore, the act must be modified so that 18- to 20-year-olds can approach alcohol consumption not with thoughts of fear and punishment, but with the knowledge that the lines of communication – with both their government and their parents – are open.

Daniel Johnson is a third-year film and media studies and literary journalism double-major. He can be reached at dcjohnso@uci.edu.

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