I know I’m not going to win a lot of sympathy with that headline, but I had to catch your attention somehow.
The other day I was in the Red Shed bar and I witnessed what I thought was beautiful tapestry of American drinking contradictions. Although it was a Tuesday night the bartender took the carding process very seriously. He put our IDs under a light and studied it for a good 20 seconds before OKing me. Not the kind of treatment you expect from a bar that appears from the outside to still be stuck in Prohibition. Several minutes later a group of about 6-7 people came in, led by a visibly inebriated girl with a Happy B-Day button on. It was her 21st, she announced to the bar. She was accompanied by her parents and several friends. After doing the free shot with her parents, she realized that the Red Shed was the place she had taken her first shot – at her grandmother’s bachelorette party. What did it taste like, asked the bartender. “I don’t remember,” responded the girl. “I was so little.”
Wisconsin law currently provides no drinking age for kids accompanied by parents in a bar or restaurant. Unlike most other states in the country, a teen in Wisconsin can be legally “taught” how to drink, which, contrary to popular belief, is actually possible.
However, new legislation proposed by State Sen. Judy Robson (D-Janesville), will eliminate the right of minors under 18 to be served in public. Some say the law should go further, and make it illegal for anyone under 21 to be served.
Raising the age to 18 wouldn’t be the worst thing – 18 is what the real drinking age should be anyway. Laws do make a difference in affecting drinking attitudes, however, not in the way they’re supposed to. In Wisconsin, I believe that if any law has adversely affected drinking attitudes among young people, it is the 21 drinking age, not the nonexistant drinking age for minors with parents.
The illegality of alcohol for young people, even those old enough to be tried as adults for alcohol-related offenses, ironically forces alcohol onto thousands of college kids who would probably choose more moderate courses of social life under a more rational system. Alcohol is badass – it’s what the cool kids in high school did. That’s at least what every not-cool kid in high school understands, which is why he is more determined than ever to drink when he gets to college. There was perhaps no better feeling than leading a group of guys from my floor up State St. to Badger liquor my first night of college life. I was the guy with the fake ID – the hero gathering resources for the party.
Every other first world nation has a lower drinking age, and that isn’t even the most convincing proof that a lower one could work better. Look at the binge drinking rates over the last two decades – they’ve risen. The drunk driving deaths have simultaneously fallen but guess what else has risen drastically? Seat-belt use, airbags, drunk driving penalties and drunk driving arrests. 30 years ago you had to practically beg to go to jail in Wisconsin for drunk driving. Our five convictions required for a felony was cruel and unusual compared to the seven needed until the late 90’s.
We have always had drinking problems in Wisconsin – but those are fought by encouraging responsibility and punishing those who act irresponsibly. Our current system does exactly the opposite, and Judy Robson’s law will only exacerbate the imbalance. Parents who take their teens to wine tastings should not be decried for encouraging alcoholism, but lauded for encouraging moderation.