I was 14 the first time I got falling-down drunk. I was attending summer golf camp at the University of Arkansas. It was 1985, and a preternaturally talented young golfer named John Daly was my camp counselor. This was six years before Daly won the PGA Championship as a rookie. He would also become famous for his drinking, but in 1985 he was still just a big kid, five years older than I was but not especially more mature.
One night he acquired a bottle of Canadian whiskey, and somehow we persuaded three girls from the tennis camp to join us in his dorm room. Not bothering with glassware, we passed the bottle around until it was empty. I remember eating some watermelon Daly had bought. The evening ended when I regurgitated the whiskey and melon onto one of the girls. Daly and another player on the Razorback golf team deposited me into the well of a shower, where I fell into a dead sleep.
I hadn't thought about that incident in years--I don't think I suffered any lasting damage--but then I started looking into the current state of underage drinking. What was considered by some to be a rite of passage back then would now be considered cause for grave concern. That's because the U.S. seems to be in the midst of one of its periodic alcohol panics, this one focused on adolescents. In the late 1800s and again during the first decade of the 20th century, our alcohol panics focused first on what was called "frontier drinking" and then on drinking in slums. Pulp novels and newspapers carried lurid tales of violent drunkenness. Today news stories offer grim accounts of high school parties that end in gruesome wrecks and of college kids killing themselves by consuming, say, 100 shots in as many minutes. Last year the Surgeon General issued a "call to action" to prevent underage drinking; the National Institutes of Health issued a similar one in 2002.
The calls to action make it sound as if America's high schools have become one enormous kegger, but in fact alcohol use among high school students has fallen dramatically. The Monitoring the Future surveys conducted by the University of Michigan show that in 1991, 81% of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders had had at least one drink in their lives; by last year, the figure was only 58%. Roughly 47% of this cohort had been drunk at least once in 1991; in 2007 only 38% had ever been drunk. On college campuses, meanwhile, the ranks of nondrinkers are rising steadily. In 1980 only 18% of college students surveyed for Monitoring the Future said they had not had a drink in the past month; by 2006 the proportion had risen to 35%.
And yet the typical college president can offer sad anecdotes about students dead from alcohol poisoning. Those deaths are still so rare that it's impossible to prove they are increasing. But according to Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, 26% of college kids who drink say they have forgotten where they were or what they did at least once; the figure was 18% for college men in the late 1940s, according to the seminal 1953 book Drinking in College. We think of the midcentury as a gin-soaked era, but when the Drinking in College authors asked students whether they had suffered an "accident or injury" as a result of alcohol (without defining precisely whether that meant only physical injury or also alcohol poisoning), only 6% of drinkers said they had. The figure has now more than doubled, to 13%.
So the data indicate there are fewer young drinkers, but a greater proportion of them are hard-core drinkers. Parents have helped create this paradox. Many parents seem torn between two competing impulses: officially, most say in surveys that they oppose any drinking by those under 21. But unofficially many also seem to think kids will be kids--after all, not so long ago, they were themselves drinking as teens. A few of these parents have even allowed their kids to have big drunken parties at home.
But there is a better way. At first it sounds a little nutty, but you might consider drinking with your kids. Incongruously, the way to produce fewer problem drinkers is to create more drinkers overall--that is, to begin to create a culture in which alcohol is not an alluring risk but part of quotidian family life. Of course, that's a mostly European approach to alcohol, but there's reason to think it could work here. And it may be the best way to solve the binge-drinking problem.
Ray DiCiccio is a well-tanned, mild, bespectacled 60-year-old who has served as executive director of the San Diego County Alcohol-Policy Panel since its founding in 1994. The organization is a county-funded nonprofit whose main mission is to reduce underage drinking, although in pursuit of that goal DiCiccio often fights for policies that restrict adult drinking as well. For instance, earlier this year the panel helped persuade the San Diego City Council to ban drinking on city beaches. It was already illegal for those under 21 to drink in any public place, but on a crowded day, it was difficult for police to be sure that no minors were taking beers from coolers.
DiCiccio and his top deputy, Patty Drieslein, feel that the alcohol industry has become so powerful that American culture has turned into a binge-drinking culture. "Most of our holidays have become drinking holidays," says Drieslein, 47, a brassy woman with leopard-print eyeglasses and a smoker's voice. "Halloween used to be about trick-or-treating, and now it's about Elvira with a beer." Kids notice, she says.
Like many temperance activists, going back more than a century, both DiCiccio and Drieslein have had problems controlling their own alcohol use. DiCiccio, a Vietnam vet originally from Midland, Pa., says he quit drinking in 1988 and then switched careers, from selling cars to helping others get sober. Drieslein, who grew up in San Diego, started drinking at 12 and went into recovery 18 years later, after indulging in six to 12 beers a night for many years.
Like many other people in recovery, DiCiccio and Drieslein--and by extension the county organization they run--take an all-or-nothing approach to alcohol. The policy panel and many groups like it around the country now maintain that all kids should wait until they turn 21 before having their first drink. That may sound uncontroversial; after all, isn't underage drinking illegal? Actually, no. When Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, it explicitly allowed kids to drink at home or in "private clubs or establishments." Similarly, under most state laws, it's legal for those under 21 to consume alcohol under certain conditions. Only six states, mostly rural ones, ban underage alcohol consumption completely.