Raising the drinking age: if there is a problem, is this the solution?
The 13-year-old schoolboy had whiled away the afternoon sniffing glue and downing a pint of vodka. When he staggered into a Halifax detoxification centre, he was, recalls a provincial drug worker, “very bombed. Without help, he might easily have died.” Denise, a 17-year-old Winnipegger who belongs to Alcholics Anonymous, says that she got drunk for the first time when she was eight. By the time she was 12, she was in serious trouble. “Sometimes I would get so sick I would bring up blood. But I would keep on drinking. ”
Just as the era of widespread narcotics abuse by young people seems to be drawing to a close across the land, concern is mounting over another kindof ‘Brugproblem”: increasingly heavy drinking, and even alcoholism, among teen-aged Canadians. Until just six years ago, a stern, longstanding prohibition against youthful boozing was firmly in place throughout Canada. Then, between February, 1970, and August, 1972, the 10 provinces, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories lowered the legal drinking age from 21 (in Quebec’s case, from 20) to either 18 or 19. Now a heated debate is developing over the wisdom of it all. While some experts find that most youngsters handle alcohol with restraint, others are alarmed over drinking in the schools, an apparently sharp increase in traffic cases involving drinking teen-agers—and over the spectacle of youngsters in the grip of alcohol addiction. Says Dr. James Rankin of Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation (ARF): “Whereas back in 1970 we rarely saw a teen-ager coming into the foundation for treatment. . . now we are seeing a significant number.” Adds Rankin: “Ideally, we should be striving to return the drinking age to 21. If we want to reverse the trend, we will have to do this.”
Moves in that direction are already under way. This month, the Saskatchewan legislature, by a vote of 29-24, gave second reading—approval in principle—to a bill that would boost the legal drinking age to 19 from 18.The aim: to cutoff the majority of high schoolers from booze. In Ontario, a report tabled in the legislature in April advocated the same change in the drinking age. MLA Terry Jones, commissioned by Premier Bill Davis to look into the habits of the drinking young, reported that teenage boozing amounted “almost to an epidemic.” Traveling around the province, said Jones, he found youngsters “zonked when they should have been in school.” In Alberta, four Conservative riding associations recently demanded that the drinking age be raised again, and in Nova Scotia, where the legal age is 19, the provincial teachers’ association wants it returned to 21.
Though hard statistical evidence of a
serious drinking crisis among youth has yet to materialize, it is clear that more and more teen-agers, including thousands well below legal age, are turning on with alcohol. According to a survey by Ontario’s ARF, only 46.3% of the province’s secondary-school students in 1968 reported using booze during the previous six-month period; by 1974, the percentage had jumped to 72.9%. A study of teen-age drinking habits in northwestern Ontario showed that 4% of the youngsters involved already had problems with alcohol and that another 12% to 15% showed signs of being high risks for future alcoholism. In Quebec, officials estimate that teen-age drinking leaped ahead by 70% between 19681973, while Ken Low, who directs the Calgary public school system’s Action Studies program, reckons that between 80% to 85% of the city high schoolers and 60% to 70% of junior high students drink—and that 15% to 20% of both groups are high-volume alcohol consumers.
Increasingly, young problem drinkers are showing up for meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and at detoxification centres. Montreal now has several AA groups formed by drinkers 17 and up, and Vancouver’s AA has seen under-25 enrollment rise from only 23 in 1974 to 151 by early this year. Recently, says a Toronto AA spokesman, a grade-school teacher asked for a representative of the organization to address a class. “We usually don’t go to schools where the kids are under 14, but that’s going to have to change,” says the spokesman. “You can see how serious it’s getting.” Young drinkers are making their mark on traffic statistics as well. Typically, in Saskatchewan, highways officials discovered that in 1974, of 8,774 teen-agers involved in traffic mishaps, 247 were definitely impaired by alcohol and another 1,067 had been drinking.
Though the actual number of teen-age problem drinkers may so far be relatively small—perhaps no more than 2% of the total—many experts in the field are convinced that the new fashion in teen-age drinking can only store up problems for the future. “If a person of 35 all of a sudden becomes an alcoholic,” says Ron Labonte, a Vancouver educational consultant, “it’s because the pattern of drinking he established as an adolescent was a hazardous one.” “All you have to see is one 14-yearold alcoholic to know,” says Inspector Fern Alexander, head of the Metropolitan Toronto police youth bureau, “and we all sit back and wonder how it happens.”
One of the most worrisome aspects of the new drinking patterns among the young is that lower legal ages mean that younger and younger children are gaining an early introduction to alcohol. “When the limit was 21, a lot started drinking at 17
or 18 because they could pass for 21, or knew someone who was 21 and could get liquor for them,” says Inspector Al Menzies of the Calgary police youth section. “Now that it’s 18, the same thing is happening with 14and 15-year-olds.”
Why are the young so avidly embracing the bottle? Besides the fact that alcohol is now legally available earlier, there are signs that the move to booze reflects a growing disenchantment with other drugs. Dr. Charles Ferguson, director of outpatient services at Winnipeg’s Children’s Centre, suspects that teen-agers are turning away from drugs such as LSD, the amphetamines (speed) and heroin out of a prudent regard for their health. Moreover, notes Ferguson, “booze is easier to get than drugs. And it’s legal.” Jim Parker, coordinator of the Vancouver Youth Squad’s school liaison program, agrees. “I would say that drugs like LSD are on the wane. The kids have experimented with them and as far as they’re concerned they’re bad news.” Ironically, parental disapproval of illicit drugs may be helping to steer youngsters toward alcohol. Notes Andre' Lacombe, director of the Quebec government’s Office for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: “It’s funny that parents seem to accept their children turning to alcohol with the general attitude: ‘Thank God, he’s drinking; at least he’s staying away from drugs.’ ” What can, or should, be done to stem the
tide of teen-age drinking? Ontario is considering proposals for mandatory photoidentification cards—a prospect that arouses the ire of civil rights advocates— and stiffer penalties for youngsters and tavern operators who break the law; Nova Scotia already is cracking down on pubs that serve underage customers. Rather surprisingly, many of the experts most concerned over youthful boozing doubt that raising the drinking age all over again is feasible, or desirable. “What rational explanation could you give a 19-year-old who has been drinking for 1 Vi years,” wonders a senior Calgary cop. “You can’t legislate him or his drinking habits out of existence.” Quebec’s Social Affairs Minister Claude Forget notes that the legal age “has not been a deterrent in the past, and I don’t think that we can solve alcohol-related problems just by changing the age.” Instead, there is wide agreement that alcohol abuse in Canadian society as a whole—and not just among the young— should be the target of government measures. With the progressive liberalization of Canadian drinking laws and greater affluence, alcohol consumption has risen rapidly in all age groups—by 30% overall during the past two years alone. One result is that perhaps 5% of all male drinkers, or roughly 420,000 Canadians, are alcoholics. A solution can only be found, suggests Vancouver’s Labonte, “by confronting society as a whole” and establishing “constructive alternatives” to the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. That is a tall order, but beginnings have been made on several fronts. In an attempt at encouraging mod-
eration, for example, Manitoba is experimenting with inexpensive, low-alcohol wines and spirits, and cheap, less-potentthan-average beer is available in Saskatchewan.
In another key area, the provinces— most notably Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario—are mounting educational campaigns in the schools and for the public to wam of the risks involved in drinking too much in the hope of offsetting the siren song of beer, wine and liquor advertising. Manitoba has gone a step further by banning from all media, except national magazines,“lifestyle” liquor advertising— the kind that, as Stephen Lewis, Ontario’s New Democratic Party Leader, puts it, shows “attractive women, robust men, all the good things coming together in that one moment of opening a bottle of beer.” Marc Lalonde, federal Minister of Health and Welfare, has warned that Ottawa may soon take action as well to put a curb on such advertising.
Ultimately, though, the greatest responsibility for teaching teen-agers to use alcohol sensibly probably lies neither with government nor industry, but in the hands of individual Canadians—the parents. In dealing with problem drinkers, says the ARF’S Rankin, “one of the first things we find is a history of alcohol or drugs in the family. It’s very unusual to take a teen-ager out of a normal environment and find an alcohol problem.” That is a fact that many drinking parents, concerned with the ways of their drinking children, may find unsettling. ELEANOR WARD
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