Food For Thought

The Minimum Drinking Age?
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor, George Mason University

John Bondafini
John E. Bonfadini

Iím sure most of you have had some unpleasant incident related to the abuse of alcohol. Many of my columns contain personal experiences that have contributed to my present views on various subjects.

When it comes to the use of alcohol my memory is full of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. My father and his friends made wine every year. A number of local Italian families would place orders for grapes with my Uncle Ed, who was a local beer distributor in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. The boxcar of grapes would arrive and the fun would begin. My dad and his friends went from house to house making wine from the grapes. On occasion I went with Dad to help squeeze the grapes. The experience always included plenty of storytelling and arguments about whose wine was going to be the best. Wine was nothing more than a food staple that was served at most of our meals, and an integral part of the family culture. We kids got to taste it on special occasions. Sometimes the wine was warmed on the stove and lit to burn off the alcohol. It was a kidís remedy for fighting the flu bug.

What’s Your View?

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My experiences with alcohol changed when my father became the bartender at the local Italian club. He was a coal miner and bartending was a second occupation to help provide some needed additional income. Mom would also tend bar so we could go fishing on occasions. She had her own sad experience related to the abuse of alcohol, since my grandfather took his own life while he was intoxicated. The death of my grandmother, due to childbirth and the associated problems of rearing a family during the Depression, probably contributed to his death.

My mother never liked the club, but, when I was in the third grade we moved into the apartment above the bar and dance floor. She could now be close to where my dad spent most of his spare time. I have some pleasant memories of the Saturday night dances where I got to polka with my sister. My bed was over the band and the bass drum bounced me to sleep on many occasions. Later in life I played bocce with  some of the elder men in a league. For two decades I had an opportunity to observe how alcohol affected the various patrons who were members of the club.

Most of the people who drank did so responsibly. They came to play euchre or pinochle and have an evening drink with friends. Those who drank too much fell into three categories. The first group of excessive drinkers included individuals who overindulged, causing them to doze off into never-never land. The second group of excessive drinkers became the clowns of the place, overly happy and sometimes a bit loud, but seldom a problem. The third type of over-drinkers included the problem-makers. Excessive drinking often made them abusive and searching for a fight. When my dad had to stop their drinking he was often challenged and on occasion physically attacked. All these groups would be a problem driving on the road, but the final category would also be a major problem for many families when they got home. None of these individuals were teenagers or underaged drinkers, which leads me to the main theme of this column. At what age should individuals be legally able to purchase alcohol?

Fear of my fatherís reaction was the main reason I didnít even think about drinking during my high-school years. Plenty of my friends drank. Now that I look back on those years, most of them didnít have a strong father influence. Donít get me wrong; sometimes Dad drank more than he should, but Mom always seemed to straighten him out the next morning. He was never abusive.

When I graduated from high school the drinking age was 21. During my first years in college, the drinking-age restriction was less a problem than in my later college years. When I finished college and began teaching at the age of 20, I was old enough to teach and influence the lives of children, but couldnít purchase a drink. There were many times before I reached the legal drinking age when I managed to sneak into places serving liquor. Not being a well-known celebrity, I didnít have to worry about anyone calling 911.

During the í60s and the Vietnam era, the drinking age was reduced to 18. The age reduction seemed logical. If a person could carry a weapon and fight for his country, he should have the right to purchase alcohol. Since that time the drinking age has steadily moved back to the 21-year-old level. When my children were going though this age range I often contemplated what the drinking age should be ó it was 18 at the time. Weíd always had alcohol in the home for special occasions. Although I was exposed to plenty of alcohol during my childhood years, I personally prefer soda or water to alcohol. Iím happy to say they are the preferred drinks of the entire family. As the death toll on the highways associated with excessive drinking in the 18-to-21-year-old level increased, I, like many others, believed that moving the minimum drinking age back to 21 was the answer.

A License to Drink

Iíve now changed my view that the legal drinking age should be 21 for all individuals. Some people, like that in group 3 above, should never be allowed to drink alcohol, regardless of age. Young adults who have graduated high school should be able to obtain a license to purchase alcohol if they have demonstrated certain responsibility criteria. They can become a role model for others.

In my two decades of observing young college students, I believe the majority would have acted responsibly in dealing with alcohol. Certainly we donít want anyone at any age on the road if his or her driving is impaired. Mandatory loss of driving privileges, for a significant period of time, for all DWI offenders would be more a deterrent than the 21-year-old minimum drinking age.

Those underage individuals who want to drink will have little trouble finding alcohol. Unlike other drugs, it is everywhere. Society has placed significant pressure on the young-adult population. Just watch sports on TV and take note of all the alcohol-related ads. The age-21 drinking limit is like locking the screen door to your house ó it only helps the honest people remain honest. Whatís needed is a real alcohol-awareness program. Maybe 19 is a more reasonable minimum age for drinking, along with other responsibility criteria.


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