Teen drinking is not a new phenomenon in the United States, but the practice has received particular attention since the 1970s.
Alcoholic beverages such as cider were a standard part of the diet of American colonists, even for children and sometimes for babies. Taverns welcomed teen boys, whose fathers brought them there as a rite of passage. Local ordinances occasionally limited the drinking of alcohol in public establishments for youths under sixteen years old, but these cases were uncommon and did not affect drinking at home. Alcohol consumption remained high in the early Republic, with adults over fifteen drinking the equivalent of six to seven gallons of absolute alcohol per year. College students, with whom alcohol was always popular, contributed to the high levels of drinking.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, child-saving reformers expressed concern at the availability of alcohol to young people in taverns. In 1877, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty tohildren helped to enact a law that excluded children from saloons and dance halls; however children selling newspapers and peddling other items frequently gathered outside saloons to hawk their wares, and others hauled buckets of beer from saloons to factories at lunchtime for workingmen. Furthermore, some boys drank in saloons courtesy of bartenders who hoped that those they treated would become loyal customers in adulthood.
Also at this time, members of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League spread the message of "scientific temperance" to children through public schools, Sunday schools, and youth temperance clubs, but they did not focus much attention on the drinking habits of youths. Some laws during this period restricted the use of alcohol by young people, but parents could allow them to drink alcohol at home or even in commercial establishments, and sellers of alcohol, not young drinkers themselves, were responsible for violations.
The onset of Prohibition in January 1920 failed to put an end to drinking in the United States. College students, particularly men in fraternities, flouted university regulations and further popularized the drinking of alcohol; many adults worried that high-school fraternities, too, promoted drinking. In 1930, about two-thirds of college students were drinkers, and many adults bemoaned the increase in drinking by young women. Foes of Prohibition argued that the restriction on alcohol would result in increasing automobile accidents as young people sought out places to drink, while supporters of the Eighteenth Amendment claimed that youth drinking was decreasing.
With the end of Prohibition in April 1933, individual states began setting the drinking age, often at twenty-one, though sometimes at eighteen for the purchase of beer. Anti-alcohol education remained standard in the public schools. Nevertheless, young people continued drinking alcohol. A study of drinking habits among college students published through the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies in 1953 found that 79 percent of male drinkers and 65 percent of female drinkers had had their first drink before starting college, and many had already begun drinking regularly. Furthermore, 45 percent of men and 40 percent of women reported having tasted alcohol before they were eleven years old. Studies such as this one failed to raise concerns about teen drinking.
Members of the baby boom generation lobbied for the right to drink alcohol (and to vote) at the age of eighteen rather than twenty-one; by 1975 twenty-eight states had lowered the legal drinking age, most to eighteen. However this new freedom was short-lived, as reports of increased rates of alcohol-related accidents and adolescent alcohol abuse gained publicity, and states quickly raised the drinking age to twenty-one again. A 1984 law made this trend universal by giving federal highway funds only to states that had, by 1986, adopted a legal drinking age of twenty-one.
The drinking age of twenty-one persists in the United States, but people under twenty-one drink between 11 and 25 percent of all alcoholic beverages in the United States. Furthermore, a study by Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 36 percent of the class of 1999 began drinking by eighth grade, compared to 27 percent of the high school class of 1975. It also appears that young males and females begin drinking at about the same time. Opponents of current laws argue that youths in countries with lower minimum drinking ages learn how to handle alcohol and tend not to abuse it. On the other hand, recent studies in the United States show a connection between teen drinking and sexual activity, high rates of fatalities in drunk driving accidents, possible neurological damage from binge drinking, and increased rates of alcoholism in later life.
Legal drinking ages in Europe vary by country, ranging from sixteen in Spain and the Netherlands, to eighteen in the United Kingdom and Poland, to twenty in Iceland. However, in western Europe, most teens begin drinking at age fifteen or sixteen, often in peer groups, with boys drinking more than girls. Approximately 90 percent of residents of the United Kingdom are drinkers by age seventeen.
See also: Adolescence and Youth; Drugs; Law, Children and the; Smoking.
Mendelson, Jack H., and Nancy K. Mello. 1985. Alcohol, Use and Abuse in America. Boston: Little, Brown.
Mosher, James F. 1980. "The History of Youthful-Drinking Laws: Implications for Current Policy." In Minimum-Drinking-Age Laws: An Evaluation, ed. Henry Wechsler. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. 1993. Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic. New York: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Torr, James D. 2002. Teens and Alcohol. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.
Ellen L. Berg