How we get hammered: The European vs. U.S. drinking age

By Christopher Sopher

Many Americans idolize a culture where Europeans—accustomed to alcohol after years of experience in their teenage years—supposedly know how to avoid binge drinking, alcohol poisoning and hazy nights of bad judgment. It’s a particularly popular topic of conversation among 19-year-old college students, waiting in grocery store parking lots for older friends to bring out cases of beer. “The drinking age is so stupid,” they say. “If only it was like it is in Europe,” suggesting with little sense of irony that, were the drinking age lower, they would both drink more moderately and enjoy the new found freedom to buy $11 cases of Natural Light.

In theory, it’s a winning idea for all involved. Young people can drink earlier in their lives, which promises more of the freedom from judgment and reason teenagers desire. Parents can believe their children are getting important early experience that, as in any other sport, helps them become better players—and helps them get a head start on the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary to become an expert at something. And the data shows many European and American young people are already well on their way.

But the evidence also suggests the differences between how young people drink in Europe and the United States aren’t nearly as great as we imagine—and the generational changes are tremendous. By most measures, European youth actually drink more, get drunk more, and do so earlier in life than their American peers (though in certain settings, such as colleges and universities, American youth still lead the drinking world). And there’s surprisingly little evidence that introducing young people to alcohol earlier or lowering the drinking age does anything except lower the age at which young people start to drink.

“The number of British, German, Scandinavian and other teenagers stumbling into hostels at 5 a.m. in London, Paris or Prague is pretty overwhelming,” said one American college student traveling in Europe, who asked not to be named discussing drinking. “Lax drinking laws, a low drinking age, and a plethora of discos, bars and clubs give kids a lot of opportunities to get totally out of control.”

Survey data and the concern of European officials support her observation. A 2008 survey found that “while young people in most European countries are drinking less frequently than their parents and grandparents, they are consuming more alcohol each time they drink,” which is similar to the U.S. trend of infrequent but heavy drinking. Data from major surveys compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the U.S. had lower rates of drinking and binge drinking among 15-16-year-olds than every European country except Turkey (which, as a predominantly Muslim country, has strong cultural stigmas against alcohol).

“Drinking to get drunk” has become much more common in Europe over the past two decades, with several surveys reporting a growing number of teenagers and young adults who say they drink for the “buzz” or to “get [insert your favorite term for drunkenness].”

“Binge drinking culture is definitely growing in Europe, and alcoholism has always been a problem,” said Charles Pellegrin, a French graduate student who has lived in several countries.

Traditionally beer-oriented countries such as the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Germany lead the statistics on youth drinking, drunkenness and alcohol-related problems—but wine countries appear to be catching up as French, Spanish and Italian young people choose beer and liquor over wine, and choose it in larger quantities.

Several Spanish and American students I interviewed discussed the trend of “botellon,” (literally “big bottle”) where Spanish teenagers sit outside in parks or on the street and drink together. This summer France has been overrun by the phenomenon called “apéro géant” (“giant aperitif”), where thousands of young people gather in flashmobs in French cities to party and drink very, very heavily.

All of this suggests that the merits of a lower drinking age and of early familiarization with alcohol might be something of a myth, too. In many European countries, the discussion about binge drinking is focused on 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds, not college students. Many European authorities are encouraging parents to take a more active role in educating their children about, and discouraging them from, drinking.

“I think that a lower drinking age just causes binge drinking a little earlier,” said one American student who studied abroad in Spain.

The evidence suggests that the differences in drinking culture between American and European youth aren’t as tremendous as we often assume. And in a globalized world where you can buy a Bacardi Breezer in 30 languages, that isn’t surprising. The differences seem more subtle, more cultural.

“Much like in the U.S., there are parties that result in people being a little too drunk,” said the American living in Switzerland. “I think that is the same across the globe, but here in Europe, alcohol is less frowned upon. But I can say for sure, when kids celebrate their sixteenth or eighteenth birthday over here, there is no focus of, ‘Yes! Now we can drink!’”

What are your experiences with European and American drinking culture? What are your thoughts on the drinking age?

Photos by Fernando Ariotti (top) and pixel0908 (bottom)

Next Great Posts labeled as Next Great are generally submissions by various contributors, whose information can be found within the text of the article. Next Great posts without author information are the collective effort of the editorial staff: Christine Peterson, Alex Pearlman and Edward Boches.

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31 Responses to “How we get hammered: The European vs. U.S. drinking age”

  1. Alex Pearlman

    Hmmm… I don’t know… Why I don’t doubt the research, I do think, from experience, that a lowered drinking age does help a person gain a respect for alcohol and drinking it in moderation.

    In Switzerland, the drinking age is actually 16 for beer and wine and 18 for hard liquor, which I think is a great system. By the time you get to be 21, you’re already a very responsible drinker (most people, anyway).

    The only thing that really, really sucks is coming to college in the U.S. after being legal for three years and then having another few years to go before being allowed to drink again… I was pretty sad between the ages of 19 and 21.

    Reply
    • Angela Stefano

      Does a lower drinking age help people “gain respect for alcohol and drinking it in moderation” better than our higher drinking age does? Or does it just help them develop that trait sooner?

      Also (this is in general, not just to Alex), do you think part of it is just that “teenagers will be teenagers” — forbidden or legal, we get the chance to drink, and we’re going to go crazy. I don’t know why; maybe because it still feels like rebelling?

      As a side note, I grew up in Buffalo, and the big deal for us was our 19th birthdays because then we could just drive the 20 minutes across the border to Canada and drink there legally. The only problem was being sober enough to get back through customs.

      Reply
      • LMB

        Teenagers in Germanic countries (that more or less includes Switzerland) are taught moderation and responsibility. Not by preaching, but by seeing their parents empty a bottle of wine and do nothing stupid.

        I’m new to central/southern Europe (Munich), and I am amazed how nice and relaxed this place is. One of the reasons is that drinking culture. It almost feels like you’re expected to get tipsy, but not very drunk though!

        PS Can you imagine that at Oktoberfest there’s more than one roller-coaster and nobody gets hurt?

        Reply
    • LMB

      …then all Bavarians must be complete morons, because they drink at every possible occasion, and Oktoberfest is your spring break, but with adults on the scene. Remember, those are the guys that design and build your BMW and your Airbus. Despite the rivers of wine and beer, there’s no drunk driving ending in lethal accidents, nor any aggression in the streets. How could that be with the drinking age at SIXTEEN?!

      Reply
      • steph

        Well I just so happen to be a 17-year-old Bavarian and yes we do drink beer at most festive occasions but (unless your a uni student ) people don’t get drunk or tippsy. You have oneor two beer with your meal andtthat’s it. Everything else is frowned upon. As a biker I don’t drink at all and to only time i’ve ever seen my father drunk was his 40th birthday with his mates.
        So quit judging people you don’t know, it’s impolite ;)

        Reply
  2. milana

    I think that the earlier someone is taught to drink the more they learn about alcohol so they are accustomed to drinking alcohol more moderately and responsibly without having alcoholic problems in the future.
    when children grow up drinking a glass of wine around the table it gives them a taste of alcohol along with a taste of being older so they understand how it feels, but american teens are restricted from this so their brain wonders about it until they grow older and by then, when their teens, alcohol is a long grasp away that they have to reach because its like a toy they were never able to experience that they’ve always wanted to….
    so the drinking age should be lowered in order to already give younger kids an experience with alcohol so they are not yearning for it in the future..

    Reply
    • Jaq

      I agree, but I think the stress is that the drinking age and the driving age are reversed. In Europe, youths learn to control their alcohol intake and get the major binge drinking out of their systems a couple of years before they even begin learning to drive. In the US, teach kids to drive at 15, let them drive on their own with time limits at 16, and cut them loose entirely at 18. Then 3 years later they are still imperfect drivers, and are allowed to drink legally. We have so many more accidents because we go full tilt in a large, fast machine while learning to control a mind altering substance, rather than learning to control the substance before learning to drive. No potential punishment is enough to talk down a drunk, confident 21 year old on his birthday – there is no-one less rational that feels more immortal.

      Reply
    • Kristy

      Milana, I completely agree with you. I grew up in the United States but my Mother’s parents were from Denmark and Spain so she was raised and had lived in Spain for two years of her life. My Mom taught me at a very young age how to drink responsibly. I will always have a glass of wine with her and that started when I was about 15. Unlike other people my age I learned how to drink properly and I am familiar with alcohol. It’s not something I am waiting to try when I turn 21 and I sure am not sneaking alcohol because there’s no need to when I can have a glass of wine with my Mom whenever I want. In Europe you are considered an embarrassment if you get drunk and can’t hold your liquor. That’s why I think the drinking age should be lowered so there’s no need to wait and get the urge to sneak a drink because it’s illegal.

      Reply
  3. Bente Petersen

    I believe that a lower age limit is better. In Denmark we also have so-called at-risk teenagers and generally they are the sober one who choose to isolate themselves from the general community.

    Some even form gangs and use weapon against bikers which have been targeted in a number of one-sided attacks without a known reason.

    I have children and I am happy to announce that they started to drink alcohol when they were confirmed and are now responsible drinkers who don’t mix drinking and driving.

    Reply
  4. jessica

    I am from the United States and I strongly believe the drinking age should be lowered to 18, and even perhaps allow younger teenagers to drink moderately under the supervision of their parents as many countries allow in Europe.

    From personal experience, my friends and I are always trying to find ways how to get alcohol, and constantly thinking about the next time we can get “drunk.” Many of my friends and classmates drink very irrisponsibly, and I believe it is because teenagers in the US are never taught “how” to drink, rather, only “not” to drink; which only puts the image of this “forbidden fruit” in our minds and makes us want it even more. Once we finally get a hold of alcohol, we go crazy and often get out of control. If we were introduced to alcohol at an earlier age, and taught the responsible way to consume alcohol, this irrisponsibility could have been prevented.

    Reply
    • LMB

      I second that emotion ;)

      Once we turned 18, it was much less cool to drink. Once you can buy it legally, you’re not breaking the rules, you know you will be held responsible for your drunken stupidity – it takes half of the fun from it. You can no longer boast how much you got drunk, because now everybody can do it. We were also “better drinkers” – since you don’t have to hide it anymore, we’d drink slower and with more food. It’s way less damaging than the quick chug behind the shop or gas station.

      US could start lowering the age for weak wines and beer. Canada has more liberal drinking laws, on the same lines as Europe, and nothing bad happens.

      Reply
  5. Lisa

    I grew up in Russia, and, strangely enough, never had any interest in alcohol.
    I recall the legal drinking age back then was 21, and there was shortage of alcohol, among other things. To buy a bottle of wine, people had to stay in line for hours, and when you finally get to the counter, it was “one bottle per pair of hands”. Students weren’t that patient and had better things to do, I guess, so the unavailability of alcohol, not the drinking age, played a role. Another major turn off for me was the image associated with alcohol consumption: Russian drunks, mostly middle-aged men who’d drink non-stop for several days, were so ugly and repulsive, with almost identical swollen and disfigured faces, semi-human eyes, incoherent speech, aggressive and verbally abusive to strangers, that even the thought of doing what they did was disgusting.

    Images have great influence on youth. Projecting an unhealthy and destructive behavior as un-cool could have a greater impact than changing drinking age, or making alcohol/tobacco/drugs less affordable or illegal.

    Reply
  6. Karz

    Disagree with the comment regarding drinking in Russia. Drinking in Russia is very much like it is in any European beer drinking country like the UK and Ireland. Infact beer consumption has also increased and now many Russias drink beer other than the typical vodka along with other commerical/western drinks Corona, WKD, even here Serbia we get all European style drinks. Never seen alcohol being limited because of lines outside stores which sell alcohol, we buy alcohol like anyone else from a Supermarket at a petrol station etc. Russia is not as alian as you suggest. Then drink with friends, family, strangers, girls or even enemies and do shit.

    Reply
  7. Parenting in the UK and the Continent. What's poppin' there nowadays?... - Page 3 - City-Data Forum

    [...] Originally Posted by syracusa Are you saying European high-school kids drink more than the American kids? Well…hmmm…come think of it, yes! It makes sense given American high-school kids are not allowed to drink AT ALL. Until the glorious "drinking age" arrives and then it's Binge Drinking World War 3 in American colleges. Young continental Europeans drink infinitely less than Americans, on average. (Save the British and Scandinavian parts, of course). I used to think that too, but it turns out to be a myth. http://www.udetc.org/documents/CompareDrinkRate.pdf According to statistical data, 35% of American adolescents drank in the past 30 days. The only country that had a lower rate was Turkey with 20%. Likewise, only 22% of American adolescents drank heavily in the past month; again, the only lower rate was 15% in Turkey. Half or more of adolescents in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom drank heavily in the month that passed before the survey. Even 39% of Greek youth, 34% of Italian youth, and 28% of French youth reported heavily drinking in the past month. Also see: How we get hammered: The European vs. U.S. drinking age | The Next Great Generation [...]

    Reply
  8. Matt Romo

    Any statistic given by the US Department of Justice is greatly skewed to show that the United States drinking age is rightfully justified, and the European countries have bigger problems than the United States, when non-governmental studies find the opposite, and find a more relaxed culture that practices moderation with their liquor.

    Reply
  9. LMB

    Lowering the drinking age in US would help in my opinion.

    First of all, to get people off drugs – after all, alcohol is less dangerous, if not beneficial to health.

    Second, when teenagers are allowed to buy beer (not liquor), then they don’t cling to each occasion like it’s the end of the world. They don’t have to get wasted. Here in Germany I often see a couple of teenagers carrying a case of 12 beers. At first sight I was shocked, but then simple math does it: it comes to 3 bottles per head (4 smaller American ones). Is that a lot for an entire party? I don’t think so.

    Reply
    • Soozy

      Okay, first of all, I’m pretty sure alcohol doesn’t get people off drugs. I’s a drug itself. And it’s even more dangerous than other drugs and not much beneficial to health. Something that causes a blackout and memory loss the next day when you had too much is not quite a sign for a beneficial drug like alcohol. The only difference between alcohol and other drugs, is that it’s legal and socially accepted. You’d better be off if you were smoking marjuana, that’s for sure.

      Second, when Germans have a party, there are more people who bring alcohol, so it suggests that the 12 beer bottles weren’t the only access to alcohol at the party.

      But maybe I’m a little bit biased towards not drinking alcohol. I’m German and I grew up in the German culture but never got any taste for alcohol despite being able to drink with 16 and getting easy access to alcohol. And peer pressure was never a problem for me. I didn’t give a fuck what the others did, as long as they didn’t thrust it upon me.

      Reply
  10. Dina

    I’m a 15 year old girl who lives in Denmark, and to be honest, it is normal that you start drinking as a 13 year old. Sad but true, and we do this almost every week. It’s normal.

    I personally don’t drink, because I think it’s completely bullshit. And I know, that I will be better off with reading a book, instead of going to a party, and get all fucking trashy. I want to stay focused, because I know, that all these times I said; “No thanks, got work to do.” will come back.

    Reply
  11. Ambrose

    I’m from England, and most of my friends started drinking at like 14/15, i think it’s quite good that there is a more relaxed attitude to alcohol here, where parents are usually pretty chilled about it and society doesn’t demonise it. By the time we’re 18 we’re pretty mature about drinking, and while we may still binge we are more aware of our limits e.t.c. In this way we are not experimenting with alcohol when we have responsiblities because we have already done so when we were attatchment free and more able to act hedonistically. There is also the issue that with trusting youths with drinking they are encouraged to experience real life and growing up where as having such an old drinking age makes youths less experienced with the world generally, and they instead are acting childishly at 21 when they’ve left home and have no guiding authority.

    Reply
  12. Sam

    Before you write a paper, ask people who are not students in college and ask a proffessional. Or, if you are a professional in the field, which may be possible, ask a peer. I say this because it seems to be a little bit uncreditable due to the lack of insight. All you ask are people who have no names and no right to comment on the matter.

    Reply
  13. Kirsty

    As an 18 year old American with older friends I believe that Europe has it together more because they are taught the effects of alcohol at a younger age. ( What sparked my interest in this was a debate I was assigned and won in a catholic high school in favor of lowering the drinking age to 18 what it was before. America has skewed their statistics, to portray Europe’s drinking age in a negative light. When, quite frankly, it is the opposite.) Aside from statistics, what bothers me on a personal level is what occurs at 18 in America. After turning 18 I have gained a multitude of responsibilities, but I have nowhere to go on the weekends because I’m not 21. Okay…so lay the responsibilities down, treat me like an adult, burden me with troubles, but keep me locked up in my house because I am not “old enough.” In fact, there are many 21 year olds who are less mature than some of my 18 year old counterparts. Age really is just a number in this debate, maturity is the issue. It doesn’t necessarily come with 3 years. I would know, as a lot of my friends are 21 so they can go do whatever they want, and I’ll be one of the last to turn 21 having a March birthday. Think about it, maybe if it wasn’t built up to be such an exiciting event here we wouldn’t have so many wasted 21 year olds in America. Logically those in Europe would likely be responsible by 21 unlike Americans who are just learning to handle alcohol at 21. So in other words… I can vote, get kicked out of my house, go to war, and get married, but I can’t have a drink. I am not saying that drinking is what puts the seal on becoming an adult. However, I am saying it is unfair that such stress is placed on us 18 year olds but little to no freedom is granted. Cheers America!

    Reply
  14. William

    Im danish – 17 years old
    I was 13 first time i was drunk, and 15 first time it went really wrong.
    That means that now where im getting close to start taking drivers license.. i first of all am used enough to alcohol, to not lose complete control, and secondly i know when ive had enough..i love our system and wouldnt wanna live in a country like US where the drinking is illegal = your afraid of calling for help.
    A

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  15. William

    My episode at the age of 15, ended up with been picked up by my uncle.. and im afraid that if i had been living in a country where i had been drinking illegally.. my friends would have been afraid of calling an adult and it would have gone all wrong

    Reply
  16. Doug

    I agree with William (above).

    Moving from Germany (legal consumption of beer/wine at 16) to Canada was an eye-opener. In my Province it is illegal even for parents to serve alcohol to their children at home in order that they can be taught about the effects and risks at home.

    My son made all of his inevitable alcohol-related mistakes at 16 when I was nearby to rescue him and watch over him as he sobered up. The idea of having some young person experiment with alcohol for the first time when they are away at college, on their own or in the company of strangers, is both dumb AND dangerous.

    Reply
  17. Dan

    I agree with Doug (above).
    I had many similar experiences with my own children and have been their support when they made the inevitable bad drinking decision. But the real question I have is to Christopher Sopher in the original article that started this thread. One statement reads, “Data from major surveys compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the U.S. had lower rates of drinking and binge drinking among 15-16-year-olds than every European country except Turkey.” Does everyone reading this truly believe that this data can be accurate and valid? Does one truly believe that 15-16 year olds will answer truthfully about their bing-drinking habits even if promised the anonymity of a survey conducted by the US Dept of Justice? They cannot talk to their parents or teachers or even law enforcement officials about the illegal, stigmatized, and demonized act they are committing (drinking) so why would they talk about it to the US dept of Justice? It doesn’t make any logical sense. Of course European 13, 14, 15, and 16 year olds will answer because even if they drink while under age in their particular country the law won’t really slam them as they would be slammed in the USA. In fact the law enforcement officials will let their parents deal with them and their stupidity.And if their parents were the ones who gave them the alcohol they will not get fined or get a misdemeanor charge levied against them by the law as they would in the USA. I live and work in Germany and do not see the same patterns of abuse here that I see in the USA. I see abuse, sure, but I also see how to recover and learn from that mistake in a healthy and productive way led by those that care about you the most…your family. I wish we could have more of that in the USA instead of draconian laws and public punishment.

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  18. Brian

    There is a bit of confusion regarding drinking laws in the U.S. While some states do forbid people of lower ages from drinking “absolutely”, the same cannot be said of the U.S. as a whole.

    There are strong cultural factors at play as well. In some places in Canada, smoking marijuana is legal on paper, but you’ll still be taken aside by police, maybe even taken into the station, and definitely put on a list. Drinking alcohol is a cultural taboo throughout the U.S. Not so much in Europe.

    This affects the degrees of leniency one might expect when drinking “illegally” in both places as well.

    The reason that the difference between teenagers in Europe and the U.S.are closing in (with regards to binge drinking) is the changing global culture.

    Just like when we find some remote village where its inhabitants live healthily up to 95 years of age, progressively starts dying at 60 with diabetes and cancer a couple generations later. All because we introduced their kids to fast food (maybe).

    Reply
  19. Jacob

    Well in Denmark we dont have a “Drinking age” We only have a certain age were you can buy beer ect. and we have a wonder full time emptying box after box :D

    Reply
  20. Buckeye

    I AGREE. I believe these kids should be allowed to make their own decisions to drink once they are old enough to be responsible and answer to their own actions, get out of the house, get their own place to live, support themselves with a job, and finish their education if they haven’t done that first. Then OK, go get drunk if you want, but don’t show up on my doorstep asking for help from your poor decision making. Call me from the police station asking me to bail you out. We, our community, has already been taking risks allowing our children freedoms where they may or may not act responsibly. Forethought, reasoning, and judgement decisions all come from the frontal lobe of one’s brain. Which does not fully developed until age 24! That is 24, not 13, 14, 15, or even 21! We already have thousands of kids raising kids. Why not add another burden to our society where many others have to pay for immaturity and inability to handle such freedoms. Alcoholism is even difficult for many adults to deal with, let alone setting up our children to go down that road!

    Reply

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