Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cultural Differences: drinking age in the UK vs the USA

My husband and kids at The Plough, our local pub in Wolvercote, Oxford

When my family was on sabbatical in England, I researched a young adult novel about an American girl who spends her junior year at a British boarding school. One of the reasons my protagonist is 16 is that's the legal age for beer and wine in the UK, as long as someone 18 or older buys, and it's consumed with a meal. This law makes pubs a popular place for families and teens, giving them a very different vibe from American bars, where the drinking age is 21.

lower Manhattan: my teen playground
To understand how my fictional character might react to a change in her legal status, I recalled my own teenaged years. Back in the 1980s, the legal age was 18 in NYC. Club reps used to hand out free passes to underage girls outside our high school. At Limelight, a church that became a dance club, a bouncer told my friends where we could buy fake ID. We were more interested in dancing than in drinking, but teens drank heavily in the 1980s. It felt more like the UK.

While I was in college, the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in the USA. I went from being of age to underage, and this varied by state. Drinking went underground at dorm keg parties, which was not my scene. The change in law brought new danger as underage binge drinkers were afraid to call for medical help.

The Rose and Crown in Oxford
I spent my junior year in London where pubs and college bars were a big part of the social scene. I frequently saw students as young as 16 drinking in the streets, often getting sick. It's a myth that starting younger encourages moderation with alcohol. Still, as a young woman, a pub was a more comfortable place to be than an American bar or keg party.

The Dartmouth Arms, North London
Once I became a parent, my view on teen drinking gained a new perspective. In Maine we live next door to a college dorm.  Our yard becomes a recycling bin on weekends. Back in elementary school, my daughter once asked her brother, "Was so-and-so louder than a drunk college student?" It wasn't all bad. My kids believe that getting drunk is disgusting and embarrassing. Even in England, where my son can now drink legally, he orders a soda at the pub.

Our family has lived in both countries because my husband is British and an academic. It's been tricky coming up with cohesive rules for our kids. We discuss the risks of alcohol and drugs with our kids and ways to deal with peer pressure.

My biggest concern with underage drinking is drunk driving. In the UK the driving age is 17 and there are stiff fines for driving intoxicated and ubiquitous speed cameras. Most people live within walking distances of a pub, and there is an extensive network of nationally subsidized public transportation. In most of the USA, kids can drive at age 16 so underage drinking is a bigger problem. Teens are actually safer in a big city where no one has a car, let alone a license in high school. Perhaps the push should be for better public transportation to keep drunk drivers of all ages off the roads.

Update: be sure to check out the comments for info about drinking laws in other countries. Fascinating discussion! Do share more.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Sarah:
You make a series of most interesting points in this post which also highlights the ways of approaching the subject of drinking and other related matters with young people.

Here in Hungary a very strict, zero tolerance policy of drink driving is enforced where it is absolutely illegal to have consumed any alcohol when driving. The penalties are severe.

Amanda Summer said...

an important post. a critical issue for teenagers, and alcohol and drugs is peer pressure. around 10th grade (and in many cases earlier) is when teens tend to feel they need to choose whether or not they will partake. so many kids at this age are anxious to be accepted and seen as popular and our media reinforces this. another factor is parents who are checked out or look the other way regarding the issue and allow parties without supervising. how refreshing to learn about your kids and their obvious self confidence, and what a lovely shot of you gathered at that cozy pub.

troutbirder said...

Hmmm. Thoughtful post. My own observation has been that children who see alchohol used in a moderate social or religious/family context are less likely to overindulge as teens than those who have been provided the hellfire and brimstone approach.

Sarah Laurence said...

Jane and Lance, thanks for sharing Hungary’s zero tolerance policy. It’s interesting how countries faced with the same problem differ in their solutions.

Amanda, good point about both peers and parents mattering. My kids are lucky to have friends who respect their choices and their small school isn’t a big party school.

Troutbirder, I hope you’re right. At dinner with the kids, my husband and I usually have a glass of wine or beer. If I have even one drink, I ask my son to drive, since I’m a lightweight. I’ve never been a heavy drinker but I do enjoy it in moderation.

Ryan Riley said...

Hi Sarah,

I have often thought about this too. Even though Sandra and I have no kids yet, we have talked about this. I guess it depends where you raise your kids. I personally feel that 16 is too young although most of my friend in school were drinking by then.

I think your right though, the US needs much better public transportation. It is a lot different stumbling home tipsy, then getting in a car and driving. I know that happened a lot with my friends and still does.

Cid said...

In Canada the drinking age varies from 18 to 19 province to province. Underage and binge drinking is still a problem on university campuses but not, I believe, as much as south of the border. I went to university in Quebec where the attitudes towards alcohol are more European and therefore the teenagers are much less likely to go crazy when out from under their parent's roof. Still as my eldest who just turned 15 begins to navigate the world of parties while living in a rural community rather than the city where I grew up I worry about him getting in a car with a friend who has been drinking.

Sarah Laurence said...

Riley, I’ll be curious to learn how you resolve your cultural differences after kids, as another American-British family but in the UK. It feels like kids grew up faster when I was a teen, but I’m not sure if that was due to the younger drinking age, being in a big city or a generational shift. There was a lot of stuff going on around me at age 16 that I wasn’t ready for so I try to prepare my kids for those situations, while asking the questions to keep them safe.

Cid, thanks for contributing the Canadian info. I love how international this blogging community is. Comments makes for fascinating discussion. The sense I got was that Europeans drink more regularly than Americans but American teens are more likely to binge. That’s interesting that Canadians are more similar to Europeans.

All, anyone else having problems with blogger being really slow today?

walk2write said...

Kristin Hannah's NIGHT ROAD is a good read for youngsters thinking about drinking, partying, and then driving home, even if it's just a few miles down the road. I remember many a sleepless night worrying about our kids when they were teens and out with their friends. I trusted them but not the friends.

☆sapphire said...


The local pub in the first photo looks lovely!! I suppose you know well that there are lots of vending machines in Japan. Most alcohol dispensing machines are located just outside the door of a liquor store. Drinking, like smoking, is prohibited until age 20. And, like cigarette vending machines, the preventative method to keep youth from purchasing alcohol is to turn the machines off between the hours of 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. I don't think that many serious problems have occurred so far because of these alcohol vending machines. But binge drinking is the most serious problem on campus! Most of the freshmen face at least one welcoming party a week from the seniors and some of them are forced to drink too much....

Sarah Laurence said...

w2w, thanks for the book recommendation!

sapphire, I was hoping you'd share this. I remember seeing beer in vending machines last time I was in Japan, but that was years ago. That's interesting that timing the machines not to dispense at night discourages underage consumption of alcohol and cigarettes.

Elizabeth said...

A really interesting topic.
I hate drunks and people puking and so on but do see the attraction of it for others.
I do think there is much more awareness nowadays of the dangers of drunken driving which is all to the good.
Thank God my children are grown up......and we have a few years peace before the grandchildren start drinking!
Happy New Year to you and your family!

Gloria Baker said...

Really interesting post Sarah my twins have 18 (a girl and a boy) and here now 18 is the age you can drive;drink; smoke or sign papers!
But if I really think my twins arent ready to all.
Esperanza smoke and drink not to much but I see at parties their friends drink a lot!
Gerardo drink a little but I think he drive so well.
All these topics worry me!
So good post!

A Cuban In London said...

Great post, Sarah. I agree with you 100% that a low drinking age does nothing for alcohol consumption, especially the amount it's consumed and the how. I've seen the same sad spectacle you witnessed here. Young people in the gutter. Literally. My view on drinking is that I will allow my children to do it when they're ready. And when both my wife and I think they're ready! :-)

Just one point, public transport in the UK, if you refer to the overground, is no longer subsidised. It hasn't been since the Major years with the coup de grace being given during the Blair years. That's why fares keep rising year on year. Because public transport is in the hands of private companies. The underground or Tube (which turned 150 years old last week) is still owned by the government, though.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

EWix, yes, awareness is good. Happy New Year!

Gloria, thanks for sharing the smoking/drinking law in Chile and your personal experience. It’s so interesting to get a broad legal/cultural snapshot of the world.

ACIL, thanks for the update on the funding of above ground railway. I hadn’t realized it had been privatized since I was last living in England. At least you have the infrastructure.

Carol said...

Sarah, I think that allowing 16 year olds to partake of beer or wine with an older teen buying and only with meals is a great idea. Drinking wine or beer with food is quite different from drinking to get drunk. In cultures where wine is served with meals as part of a meal . . . I believe there is less drunkenness. In other words it is not such a big deal. I could be wrong but it seems like common sense. The Plough looks like a fun place . . . part library too.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I prefer the atmosphere of pubs in England and Ireland to bars in America. The former is more neighborhood/family oriented. But alcohol is alcohol and some people are prone to addiction or at least overindulgence.
I don't know if there is any easy answer.
Public transportation sure is better than people driving, but I think I read that some taxi drivers are charging fees if anyone gets sick in their cabs. Can't say I blame them. ;)

Alyson | New England Living said...

Very interesting points to consider, and it sounds like you have raised your kids correctly, and it sounds as if they got a great perspective by seeing drunken idiots. We are Mormon, so we don't drink. My husband has never had a drink of alcohol ever. I, however, did try alcohol in my teens, particularly in the UK since it was so easy to get my hands on it at the pubs on the weekends.

prince snow farm said...

This definitely is a topic to think about /discuss. I was in an awkward stage when the drinking age changed....I graduated high school at 17, most of my friends were 18 and legal...then here in Massachusetts they moved it first to 19, not 21! So all my friends were legal, and I was just about to turn 18 and they bumped it to 19, then of course I was just about to turn 19 and they bumped it up again! It was an odd time, I know you agree!

I guess I was always one of those who thought in Europe it was a way of life, not a problem. Your story has opened my eyes.

Our kids are like yours, and I hope to keep it that way.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Great topic. I grew up in the Netherlands, without alcohol in the family. I was also a solitary nerd and therefor saved from peer pressure. My first alcoholic drink was wine at a party with the graduating class, just before I turned 18. Occasional and moderate use of mostly wine and beer followed. My 21st birthday took place in Sweden, where a girlfriend and I were working in a small resort on the West coast. Our co-workers assumed I would go to the pub after work and get stinking drunk. It turns out 21 was the legal age to drink in Sweden.

Elizabeth Musgrave said...

A fascinating discussion. Alcohol has taken over from other things as the drug of choice in the UK I think and there is a lot of binge drinking amongst teenagers. I think over the last twenty years or so we have lost our "European" approach and become much more extreme. Pubs are still civilised and welcoming places on the whole but clubs and bars in city centres catering for the under 25s have a very different atmosphere. Our children are now all adult and grew up with moderate drinking at home and being allowed to drink wine with meals from the age of about 16. They now seem to have a pretty balanced and sensible attitude as adults but I look at my niece and nephew now in their teens and hope they can withstand the pressure to drink quite deliberately to excess.

Sarah Laurence said...

Carol, an older teen buying for a younger teen with a meal should work in principle to teach moderation, but it doesn’t in practice, at least not in the UK, sadly.

Tricia, good point on addiction. The age an addict is exposed is a factor.

Alyson, removing alcohol entirely means there is no mixed message. For Jews a 13 year old is an adult and expected to drink a small glass of wine at religious observations in the home like Passover. That was my first exposure but my kids chose to pass on it.

Nantucket Daff, how frustrating! I can imagine it would be hard to be legally separated from your peers.

Ien, thanks for sharing your experience in the Netherlands and in Sweden.

Elizabeth M, yes, it appeared to me that the Brittish teens drank more than their European counterparts, at least what I saw when I was traveling. I tend to gravitate toward old fashioned family friendly pubs outside the city.

Unknown said...

In Australia, they have harsh drink driving penalties to deter offenders from repeating the offense.

Posted in this website are the charges and penalties -