Liquor as a Rite of Passage

by Gamal Hennessy

Nightlife is defined as adult activities outside the home that revolve around social connection. By definition, children are not meant to play a significant role in the discussion of nightlife benefits or problems. However, we all know that minors are drawn to liquor, because it has happened to many of us. So any discussion about reducing underage drinking in nightlife has to include the motivations of the minors if we want to create positive change.

In the United States, consumers must reach the age of 21 before they are legally permitted to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. This legal barrier creates one of the most powerful social effects of liquor in nightlife. Nightlife is an adult environment primarily because alcohol is served there. The collective message we send is, “If you can drink, you must be an adult.”

The fact we label people who can drink “adults” and people who can’t drink “minors” creates a need to drink that has nothing to do with the liquor itself. In our system, the permission to drink is a symbol of adulthood and independence. This is one of the main reasons that teenagers struggle to obtain fake IDs and then sneak into clubs even though they may not like the environment. Ironically, many of them don’t really want the liquor because they dislike the taste of alcohol. But they do want to grow up faster than our society will allow. They want to be adults faster than their physical, mental or emotional capabilities can manage. Consuming liquor is a short cut to that status.

This is not the same in other countries. According to the International Center for Alcohol Policy, many countries have a legal drinking age of 18 or even 16. In influential states like China, France, Israel, Italy and Russia, there is no drinking age at all. There is a direct relationship between the rules for drinking and people’s relationship to alcohol.

We have created a powerful social motivation for minors to drink. But it is interesting to note that while the sale of alcohol to minors is seen as a major problem in nightlife, most minors get their drinks without ever stepping into a club. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 10.1 million people aged 12 to 20 nationwide reported being current drinkers of alcohol. While these numbers might be shocking, it is enlightening to take into account another study conducted by the Department of Health in 2006. In a work entitled. “Where Do Minors Get Alcohol From?” the government found that, depending on the age of the minors, anywhere from 85-97 percent of the alcohol they have access to is from outside the nightlife setting. While underage drinking is a problem across America, nightlife is not a primary location for that kind of abuse.

Unfortunately, nightlife is often singled out as the villain in the story of underage drinking. The social motivation of the minors themselves is often discounted or ignored. But placing the blame solely on the doorstep of the operator will not solve anything. Change can only occur if society changes its perception of and relationship to liquor as a whole. When our indulgence is more responsible, our relationship with liquor is more relaxed. When that happens minors, won’t feel the need to drink illegally because the social benefit will be gone.

Have fun.