I am re-posting a blog from March 27, 2008 which I wrote in response to an article by Eric Asimov about his children drinking at home. Preventing underage drinking was the main focus of the public health advocates who served on the subcommittee of the Massachusetts Alcohol Tax Force with me.
In today’s New York Times, Eric Asimov has an article discussing introducing adolescents to alcohol in a family setting. His children are sixteen and seventeen and he is contemplating giving them sips of wine with dinner. Asimov reviews some of the debate over the wisdom of allowing young people under the age of twenty-one to drink and discusses, to a limited extent, European models of family and adolescent drinking The personal decision Asimov and his wife are contemplating is a small example of a long-standing debate in the field of alcohol attitudes.
Temperance and prohibition advocates in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were adamantly opposed to young people drinking and they developed Scientific Temperance, a curriculum designed to educate students about the physiologically of drinking. The lesson often included demonstration of a shriveled liver. For prohibitionists drinking and alcohol abuse were societal problems which required a societal responses. In this world view there was no room for individual choice or decision and when and where it as appropriate to drink.
Following Repeal, the liquor industry worked hard to reestablish liquor as an appropriate beverage and re-integrate drinking in family life. The medical and scientific community helped brewers and distillers in this endeavor by reformulating problem drinking and alcohol abuse as a medical and individual problem.
Brewers, both before and after Prohibition, saw beer as the beverage of moderation which could be enjoyed throughout society. German immigrants enjoyed drinking in a family setting, the beer garden. The beer garden represented brewers highest ambitions for the place of beer in American society. However the saloon, a less wholesome public place for drinking predominated in the years prior to Prohibition.
Although the alcohol studies field has been successful in defining alcoholism as an individual disease, since the 1970’s an alternative formulation, in many ways closer to the vies of prohibitionists has emerged. Because of societal problems such as drunk driving, cirrhosis, and fetal alcohol syndrome, public health advocates have argued for societal responses to these problems. The raising of the minimum drinking age in 1984, warning labels on alcoholic beverages, and ongoing battles to restrict television advertising of beer are examples.
It is this social context that is missing from Asimov’s discussion of his personal decision about introducing his children to alcohol. Although he does reference the issue of driving he seems to assume that the only influence on young people choices around drinking will be family. Beer is so integrated into our society on so many different levels that its cultural influence on young people must be accounted for.
Acknowledging the cultural influence of beer does not mean that an individual family which enjoys drinking in a moderate way, whether it be wine beer or a cocktail, can not convey those responsible habits to their children. It would be naive, however, to accept that this “normalizing” of alcohol will be able to provide universal protection against such young adult dangers as binge drinking or ritual drinking around turning twenty-one.