The United States is unique in outlawing drinking for all those 21 and younger, at the same time that studies and books continue to lament the massive binge drinking by young people on (and off) college campuses. How might we teach young Americans the ability to manage the drinking experience, one to which they are ultimately legally entitled but for which they are fundamentally unprepared.

Further Reading


Healthy Drinking March/April 1996.

Telling children all drinking is bad is simply not true

Stanton Peele


After years of debate, earlier this month the United States government finally announced that drinking alcohol can be beneficial. The federal government's dietary recommendations, which are revised every five years, now indicate that moderate drinking lowers the risk of heart disease. The dietary guidelines also note that such "beverages have been used to enhance the enjoyment of meals throughout human history."

There is both old and new information in this statement. We all know that many Americans drink moderately. They drink occasionally or lightly at meals and social occasions, they know when to quit, don't misbehave when they drink and enjoy the taste and sensations of alcohol without going overboard.

Most of us are also aware that people in different cultures handle alcohol differently. In Mediterranean societies—such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and so on—alcohol is consumed in the form of wine, usually at meals, with family members of both genders and all ages. Children are often offered small amounts of wine on special occasions.

To many Americans, the idea of offering children alcohol is reprehensible. Yet this approach to drinking seems to inoculate children against alcohol abuse, even after they become adults. A famous study conducted by Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant followed a group of men in Boston for over four decades. Italian, Greek, and Jewish men in his group were only one-seventh as likely as Irish Americans in the study to become alcoholic. The groups in the Vaillant study which had few alcoholics actually teach children to drink at home. The problem with a blanket disapproval of drinking is that many children develop drinking habits on their own that are very different from sipping wine at a religious feast. National surveys show that almost half of college students have drunk five or more drinks at one sitting in the prior two weeks. Among fraternity and sorority members, this figure is 80 percent and more.

Ironically, in the United States today, we follow the method of alcohol education found least successful in the Vaillant study. That is , alcohol is grouped with illicit drugs and children are taught abstinence is the only answer. Yet children are aware that most of their parents drink. Moreover, drinking will be legal and widely available to them within a few short years. Clearly, many young people find the abstinence message confusing and hypocritical.

Vaillant also made the apparently contradictory discovery that abstinence was more common among the group of Irish Americans that also had more alcoholics. This is because many men alternated between abstemiousness and binge drinking. Also, while many in this community did not drink at all, it was as though other members had to drink more to even out overall consumption.

That many Americans from all social and ethnic groups—including Irish Americans—drink moderately is not news. What has made news in recent years are the results of studies that examine health outcomes among groups of adults who have been tracked for years. These studies—including the Kaiser Permanente, Harvard Health Professional, and American Cancer Society studies—find that moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers.

What is moderate drinking? The American government defines this as no more than two drinks daily for men and one for women. Britain has established a somewhat higher standard of 3-4 drinks for men and 2-3 for women for what it calls "sensible" drinking. These standards apply to adult men and post-menopausal women, or to any adult with one or more coronary risk factor (such as having a parent with premature heart disease being overweight, having high cholesterol or blood pressure, etc.). Three-quarters of all Americans have such risk factors.

The lower death rate among moderate drinkers is due to the reduction in heart disease, specifically atherosclerosis or clogging of the arteries. Alcohol enhances high density—or good—cholesterol production. However, when people average over two drinks daily, the rate of diseases such as cancer and cirrhosis starts to rise.

Research shows that, on average, at five to six drinks daily for men and four drinks for women, these risks outweigh the benefits of alcohol. However, a recent Danish study (featured on "60 Minutes"), found that drinkers' life expectancy was enhanced by drinking up to five glasses of wine daily. This finding did not hold for beer or spirits.

Related Resources

Robin Abcarian (2005, December 31), Is home schooling best for drinking? Should parents teach children how to imbibe responsibly or stick to 'not until you're 21'? Even experts disagree. Los Angeles Times