Growing up in the United States, I never understood the hypocrisy of drinking laws, and by extension drinking culture, in a country known to the world as a beacon of personal freedom. How was it possible that an 18 year old could vote for the president, drive a car, enlist in the army, and own a rifle, but couldn’t legally drink a sip of beer or wine? After reading about the Prohibition era, I figured that maybe the country’s leaders thought drinking laws would prevent young people from forming dangerous habits as a result of alcoholism. But it wasn’t until I moved to Switzerland at the age of 13, where the drinking age in most regions is 16 years old for the consumption of wine and beer, that I realized how deceitful this national policy really is.
Firstly, if we wanted to compare bad habits, smoking cigarettes can be just as harmful to a person’s health than drinking alcohol, if not more. Why is it, then, that state laws allow for the consumption of most tobacco products at the age of 18, but say that young people are not ready to drink an alcoholic beverage until 21 years old? Moreover, junk food can be equally destructive to a person’s health, but the government doesn’t regulate how many donuts or cupcakes a person can legally eat in a day. This is not to imply that people shouldn’t eat or drink what they want; individuals have the right to choose what to put into their body, and considering that most developed countries around the world give that right to young people at least at the age of 18, it’s safe to assume that a glass of champagne won’t ruin a young adult’s future or signify the end of the world.
However, an adult might ask, what’s to stop a 16 year old girl and her friends from drinking until they throw up? Firstly, there is no guarantee that adults would drink responsibly, and frankly far too many don’t. Secondly, I think that culture plays a huge role in helping young people develop a healthy relationship with alcohol. More importantly, moderation is key. Here in Switzerland, parents see the 16th birthday as an opportunity to teach their children about healthy alcohol consumption. When I turned 16, my mom took my sister and I to a bar and I drank my first glass of wine in public. Because alcohol drinking is so normalized here, adolescents often don’t feel the need to drink beyond their limits. Now of course there are exceptions to this, but that’s also the case for any behavior which has the potential to be risky. If the government really cared about the health of young people, it would be producing ads which promote moderate alcohol consumption, and not ones which aim to scare youth away from it.
Alcohol isn’t evil. It can’t be, it’s just a beverage. But alcohol also plays a significant role in celebrations, the formation of new friendships, milestones, and other life events which make life meaningful. If we don’t think that young people can drink responsibly, how can we expect them to grow up into successful adults? The policy limiting alcohol consumption to 21 years of age isn’t about health; its focus is to control and make people fear what they shouldn’t. 16 year olds have the ability to own successful businesses, compete in the Olympics, do academic research, climb mountains, and more. I think it’s time to let them have a sip of beer.