Drinking laws target wrong adults

I just moved back home to Mississippi. I grew up here, I went to State, I pined to get out. I vowed I'd never come back except to visit family. Guess what. We arrived last week in a 26-foot U-Haul.

I appreciate home more now. I'm loving the friendliness, the colorful talk and characters, the tropical smells of my childhood, having a backyard, ordering grits for breakfast again, the cheaper rent. And, thanks to ignorant white flight, it's truly multicultural and progressive here in the Jackson city limits. African-American faces dot the newspaper pages and not just to illustrate crime stories; national TV ads feature probably more black faces than white; a black Democratic incumbent mayor beat a black Republican challenger this week; artists are moving in. That shameful Stars and Bars may still be flapping in the humidity, but change is indeed afoot underneath.

One confounding problem hasn't changed much, though: the state still has screwed-up views of young people, especially in that 18-to-21 bracket, a problem that unfortunately is simply a magnification of the national mindset toward young adults. That is, they are old enough when you want something from them -- say, military service or a lifetime membership in your shooting club or their hard-earned dollars -- but not when it comes to pleasures they might want in return. Like, say, drinking a margarita with friends once exams are over, a la Jenna Bush.

This fact struck me last week as I read the latest media apologist column -- you know, the we're sorry, but this is why we're covering the First Daughter's crimes and, by the way, did you hear about that New York Post headline, "Jenna and Tonic," chuckle, chuckle -- in the Washington Post. Of course it's national news, I thought, when the president's daughter thumbs her nose -- twice -- at a stupid, discriminatory law and then gets arrested for it. (Now, that so-called teen "stand-off" in Idaho, on the other hand ... )

Rolling my eyes, I next picked up the Neshoba Democrat, the weekly newspaper of my Mississippi hometown. There I saw the line-up of hopeful, overly made-up, tender young female faces over blurbs announcing their upcoming weddings, often to some equally pimply-faced 19-year-old boy. Sometimes you can see their braces. Nearby are the baby announcements: I sometimes recognize the grandparents' names as students I went to Neshoba Central with; some were in grades behind me. I'm 39; you do the math.

It's clear what dirt road I'm headed down here: Many of those teens will end up in bad marriages. Most don't know themselves, yet, much less have the tools to figure out how to live happily with someone else, or raise healthy, balanced children. How is it that our society finds it perfectly acceptable for so-called children to marry and have babies, but not to drink champagne at their own reception? Or to be called to military duty to kill or maim un-Americans, but not to relax with a Corona when they're off-duty. Or, in the Gun Belt, to own and fire weapons, but not be able to have a shot of Sauza at happy hour? It's patently absurd, and we'd know it if we'd face our hypocritical attitudes toward young people.

I remember growing up in Neshoba County, "dry" for much of my teen years. That didn't stop anyone from drinking; we'd just pile in a car and tool down Highway 19 past the county line where you could buy anything you wanted from the back door of Ed's Beer Joint. There was a reason that strip of blacktop was known as one of the deadliest in the state of Mississippi; I personally knew several people who died on it. Same in college: At first, 18-year-olds couldn't drink beer in Starkville, so we'd drive to the next county over to party.

Of course, times have changed. Thankfully, it's harder for actual kids to fake IDs and drive around hurling Miller Pony bottles at signs. (Hey, we were bored in the Heart of Dixie.) And our society has become much more diligent about the dangers of drunken driving. Even Bad Boy Bush might have trouble getting off in the current climate.

But we have gone too far with adults between the ages of 18 and 21. Jenna Bush's arrest proves it. This young woman did nothing wrong; she certainly was not going to jump into a car and drive her friends into an embankment. Secret Service would see to that. But she was victimized and stigmatized by a doofus law based on a faulty premise i.e. that "underage drinkers" are the most dangerous. Not true.

Children's advocate and social scientist Mike A. Males uses hard data to show that we should be much more worried about besotted adults than those under 21. In his book, Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation, he reveals facts that both the right and the left conveniently overlook. He shows that a 45-year-old is much more likely to maim or kill in a drunken-driving accident (men are 60% deadlier than teens); five-sixths of drunken killers and maimers are men over 21; drivers 21-44 are more dangerous than 16-20-year-olds. And many, many more people over 25 die every year from binge drinking than teens do.

Males argues convincingly that raising the drinking age to 21, and the institution of "zero tolerance" alcohol policies for these young people starting in the late 1980s, has made little difference: the rate of violent deaths among teens 16-18 rose slightly and among those aged 21-24 dropped slightly. Most of the actual teens affected, 19- and 20-year-olds, have seen few changes; they drink one way or the other if they want to, often sneaking around like criminals as Jenna and Barbara Bush must do. Further, Males argues, this zero-tolerance madness simply masks a larger problem, mostly for adult men over 25: "Obsession with teenage drinking is a key factor in denying the adult problem, which in turn is crucial to maintaining lenient standards for adult alcohol use," he writes.

Jenna-gate offers the perfect opportunity to consider teen alcohol use (rather than be subjected to more endless hand-wringing by an apologist press). If we face the truth, we'll see that the nonsensical 21 limit is causing young adults to take more risks than if they could drink legally. "Our perverse postponement of drinking creates problems instead of solving them," Dwight Heath, an anthropology professor and alcohol expert at Brown University, told the Associated Press. He suggested that we Yanks should take lessons from places like France and Spain where young people are encouraged to drink moderately and in the open, rather than create a dangerous mystique around alcohol.

Heath has it right. I remember a lovely scene in the film A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, based on Kaylie Jones' book about her father, the writer James Jones, and their family's years in Paris. When she got her period, her father, mother and little brother took her out for champagne, toasting her passage. Of course, such honesty is not the American way. We like to issue puritanical judgements against others while sneaking around to do it anyway, while hoping we don't get caught. And if anything goes wrong, we can just do what we usually do: Blame it on the kids.

Donna Ladd is a Packard Future of Children fellow. E-mail her at

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