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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Alcohol Sting Leaves Sour Taste

Dennis Fox

January 2, 2003

Like most parents, I want to teach my daughter not to abuse alcohol when she's older and not to use tobacco at all. But sending junior narcs to entrap waiters and cashiers isn't the way Brookline should go. It's unfair to the workers. It's overreaching. And it's counterproductive.

Local sting operations generally demonstrate that a sizeable minority of town businesses sell forbidden goods to minors. The police send in some helpful underage teenager and then swoop in when the guy at the cash register or waitress on the floor fail to demand proof of age. In the wake of the alcohol sting announced last month, a third of the 48 tested businesses -- restaurants, bars, and liquor stores -- face possible liquor license suspensions.

The paternalistic law is clear. Only a minor's parent can give alcohol to someone under 21 or tobacco to someone under 18. So sending a 19-year-old to buy a beer while the cops wait outside, or a 16-year-old for a pack of cigarettes, is probably legally justified. Yet just because something's legal doesn't mean it's a good idea.

It might bother me less if the cops focused on noisy hangouts where emerging drunken teens routinely act like obnoxious drunken adults. If a bar spawns teenage mayhem or a liquor store sells six-packs to every passing middle schooler, then cracking down makes some sense.

But busting a restaurant because a waiter serves a beer to a 19-year-old woman at the sushi bar doesn't make me appreciate good police work. It reminds me instead of signs outside a Midwestern Best Buy, assuring me they drug-test every employee's urine. I don't think to myself: Responsible Merchant. I think: Big Brother.

That's also what I think when a Harvard Street Walgreen's cashier demands ID from a cigarette-seeking woman obviously in her sixties or seventies. The explanation -- "We have to ask everyone, no matter how old they look!" -- is protectiveness run amok.

I share the urge to protect our kids. But kids also have to learn to make responsible decisions for themselves.

The balance between protection and freedom is complex. In the family policy field, there's tension between "child savers" who advocate greater protections for children, like restrictive work rules and the higher drinking age, and "kiddie libbers" who cite evidence that most teenagers can reason about the consequences of their acts about as well -- or as poorly -- as most adults; they just need real-world practice.

But making alcohol legally unavailable to citizens old enough to vote, marry and divorce, sign contracts, and join the military -- and, increasingly, to be legally tried and punished as adults "because they're old enough to know what they're doing" -- is glaringly contradictory.

It's not even smart. Letting only adults imbibe adds to alcohol's attraction; aiming for abstinence almost always backfires. Instead, the goal should be developing the ability to make responsible choices. Without a chance to sometimes make stupid ones, teenagers, like the rest of us, won't learn how to make good ones.

Most of us today recognize how ludicrous it is to enforce paternalistic laws affecting adults. Unlike criminal laws designed to protect us from evil-doing others, moralistic laws restricting forbidden fruit like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, prostitution, gambling, and every sexual act other than married missionary-position intercourse seek to protect us from ourselves.

Sure, some of these acts can damage health and thus ultimately burden the taxpayer. But so do skydiving, eating at McDonald's, and getting too little exercise. Why not ban all of those, too?

It's no less ludicrous to imagine our teenagers will listen to what we say rather than watch what we do.

Let's prevent drunk driving, for minors and adults alike. Let's teach the consequences of every health-related behavior, accurately describing the benefits and drawbacks. Let's stop glorifying binge drinking and making alcohol an acceptable excuse for violence and a requirement for a good time.

But let's not crack down on Beacon Street restaurants. When a 19-year-old drinks a quiet beer with dinner and then walks home, she's modeling the kind of behavior we want, especially when she walks cigarette-free. Firing the waiter and penalizing the restaurant serve no useful purpose.

column on teenage rights and responsibilities

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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