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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Could Sweden and Scotland Be On to Something: Lower Pub Drinking Ages One Way to Manage Younger Drinkers

When you reach 18 years old in the U.S. there are a laundry list of rights and responsibilities that come along with the birthday cake that make adulthood official. There are only a couple of things held back: you cannot run for President for another 17 years and you have to wait until you are 21 before you can legally purchase alcohol.

I know of no one who has tried to break the first law. I know of no one who obeys the second. Fake IDs are as much a part of the required gear for college students as computers and dorm refrigerators. We have managed to create an entire generation that recognizes some laws are made to be broken.

In Scotland, where the drinking age is 18, they have a different problem. Binge drinking by under 21 year olds is being fueled by access to cheap beer and cider at grocery stores and shops. Some believe the behavior on Friday and Saturday nights has gotten way out of hand.

Is anyone pushing to raise the drinking age to 21 years old? While it has been discussed, most realize it will fail as it has in the U.S. Instead the move now being considered is aimed at controlling when and where young drinkers can consume alcohol.

Scotland's government will consider a plan this coming week that would push 18-20 year old drinkers into pubs and either ban or restrict when they can purchase booze in shops. Sweden has a similar law for those under 20 years old. Scotland may also set minimum prices for beer and cider at retail and eliminate two-for-one promotions used by grocery stores as loss leaders to drive traffic.

The town of Armadale, West Lothian, experimented with a plan that banned under 21 year olds from buying drinks off-premise on Fridays and Saturday after 5 p.m. Police reported a drop in alcohol related crimes among young people.

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I'm not usually in favor of bans on selling alcohol to adults. But I do think restrictions have a place in our society. Closing bars at 2 a.m. or halting alcohol sales at the start of the fourth quarter at NFL games does serve a real purpose, although those intent on getting plastered in either of those venues have usually achieved that goal well before last call.

When America finally comes to its senses and makes it legal again for 18-20 year olds to buy alcohol, it might be wise to look at what the Scots and the Swedes have done. Giving these new legal drinkers the right to drink in a supervised and controlled environment could be the safest and smartest way to handle the issue.

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