October 28, 2003

Drinking observations from the UK

The legal drinking age in the U.K. (where I'm studying this year) is 18, and I've had the dubious privilege of hanging out with all of the "freshers" as they go through their orientation week. This has been a culture shock—nearly every orientation mixer (all of them college-sponsored) has involved alcohol. Drinks in the Old Combination Room. Drinks in the Old Kitchen. Drinks in the Junior Combination Room. A Three-Legged Pub Crawl. Drinks at Formal Hall. Drinks in the Alheusen Room. And so on. In other words, the British treatment of alcohol on campus is everything you'd expect from a liberal alcohol regime. Kids drink a whole lot of alcohol. You'd think this would be a disaster.

But it's not. It helps that most of the drinks are school-provided, and the school never provides hard liquor. College freshmen are most likely to drink whatever's free, and here what's free is cheap, serviceable, red wine—nothing wonderful, but better than anything you can get out of a box in the States. Of course, some kids here do drink hard liquor—Gin and Bitter Lemon (that's British for "flavored tonic water") is a favorite on my floor—but a lot of them just don't like the taste.Imagine the luxury. Being 18 years old and able to choose what to drink because you like the taste. One of the most annoying things about acquiring alcohol when you're underage is the terrible selection you get. Since stores often card people for merely entering, or insist on carding everybody in a single shopping group, it's hard to tag along with your 21 but alcohol-ignorant friend to explain to him which Beaujolais you'd like to try or which Torres white wine is the best, or deliberate over the bottles of Maker's Mark and Jefferson's Reserve. Sure, if you've got a particularly close friend or parental scofflaw and a little amount of organization you can put together a shopping list, but the reality for many American undergrads is that alcohol is catch-as-catch-can.This is bad. It's bad because it encourages a "drink it while it's here" mentality. It's bad because it means people drink more hard liquor and less wine and beer (just like during Prohibition!). It's bad because it means people drink more low-quality alcohol (and it's a lot worse to get sick on Dark Eyes than Stolichnaya). But most importantly, it's bad because the whole point of drinking is to enjoy oneself, and it's pointless and stupid to drive kids to drink Bud Light, MGD, and Smirnoff, when what they'd really like is a nice Guinness, or an Argentinean Malbec.Like it or not, kids learn to drink in college. In America, they learn Jell-O Shots. I haven't seen one here. They're also building up their tolerance. Many of the girls here can easily drain their half of a bottle of wine at dinner and more. If you can drink every night with food, that's still 6-20 drinks a week, but it's a whole lot healthier (and more fun) than if you have all 20 drinks during a Friday-Saturday bender at Alpha Delt.

Would a switch to an 18 drinking age be better for America as a whole? It's hard to be sure. Some people suggest that the British system makes high school drinking worse, though it would be hard for it to be worse than drinking in my high school was. In any case, a more liberal alcohol policy is ironically responsible for Britain's healthier college drinking culture.

Despite a lot of drinking (and make no mistake, British freshers drink far more than American freshmen), nobody has thrown up yet in our hall's toilet. Nobody on my floor has engaged in regretted sexual conduct. No fistfights have broken out, and no cars have been crashed. Sure, there's been a little bit of joyous (off-key) singing, but the pubs close before midnight and people quiet down before one.Before I left Chicago, somebody asked me how I was going to handle the British drinking culture. They drink a lot, but I'll tell you, it's a hell of a lot easier to handle than the American one.