There are few more controversial subjects than the topic of underage drinking, so let me just say at the outset that I am not encouraging it. But with many such questions, things aren’t always so black and white, as a recent study on teenage drinking demonstrated. In a nutshell, the study evaluated beverage preferences among high school students who display risky drinking patterns, concluding that hard liquor and beer are preferred over wine. The study, called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, questioned nearly 8000 adolescent drinkers, and the correlation between preference for liquor and/or beer was strongest among those who exhibited the riskiest behaviors (binge drinking, drinking and driving.)
No surprises there you say, we all know that liquor is quicker where the beverage is merely a vehicle for alcohol consumption as a drug. We don’t expect teenagers to be wine connoisseurs, even if it were legal. But there is the well-known European tradition of starting children on watered-down wine with meals and special occasions, in the context of wine as part of a meal. Growing up with such a view of wine as food probably contributes to lifelong healthy drinking habits, and it does begin in the teenage years. On the other hand, a typical American household views alcohol as a drug no matter what the form it takes, holding it out as a special reward of adulthood (placing it in the same category as pornography.)
And beer, for all its potential list of positives, tends to be portrayed in TV commercials in the context of parties and recreational events, virtually never as a nutritional part of the evening meal. Simply put, it is marketed as a drug, a message only reinforced by the admonishment to “drink responsibly.”
So is there a way to bring some balance to the message? I say make drinking a family value: wine with dinner means drinking at home, setting a positive example as an alternative to kegger parties and binging on weekends; drinking for aesthetic reasons, not anesthetic ones. In so doing we take away some of the mystique of the forbidden fruit. This of course presumes that we adults set the right example.