I’ve always thought that Britons enjoyed less freedom than us Americans, with regards to virtually every aspect of life save one: underage drinking policies. So I was sorry to learn through spiked that the British government has decided to take a page from the insane playbook of the anti-alcohol lobby in America (see Proving you’re an adult turns you into a child, by Dolan Cummings). If you want to see what the future might look like for younger adult drinkers if you Brits don’t stop this creeping authoritarianism, take a look at what Uncle Sam has been up to.
As a college student in the US, and having worked in a grocery store for a while, I know plenty about the underage drinking laws and their enforcement. To start with, the legal drinking age in the US is 21, compared with the UK’s 18. In the US, showing ID when purchasing alcoholic beverages is commonplace and is a generally accepted principle. It has recently become more and more common for stores to demand identification from everyone purchasing alcohol – regardless of age – due to fear of fines.
In fact, the UK’s legal limit of 18 and British supermarkets’ ‘Think 21’ and ‘Think 25’ policies, whereby checkout staff are required to ask anyone who looks under the specified age for ID, are lax compared to some US states. In Michigan, by law anybody under 30 must be ID’d. It would not surprise me if one day pensioners get asked for identification, too. Undercover police informants go from store to store attempting to purchase alcohol without identification and then presenting a fine of up to $1,000 if the establishment serves them.
I found it particularly interesting to learn from Dolan Cummings’ report that a 17-year-old in Britain was not allowed to carry her grandmother’s bag because it contained alcohol. Again, this seems to replicate US patterns. Here, it is a widely accepted law that people under 18 are not allowed to handle alcohol within business establishments. Waiters and cashiers under 18 are required to deny sale of alcohol to adult customers, sending them to another checkout or service person. It is also illegal for people over 21 to purchase alcohol for minors (although the practice is common).
Even more ridiculous is the experience of drinking on college campuses. Here, drinking tends to take place behind closed doors and police regularly patrol areas where underage drinking is known to occur. In some areas enforcement is lax, but in Allendale, Michigan – home of Grand Valley State University where I study – the police do not offer warnings. If a person under 21 is caught with an open container of alcohol he or she can be fined over $200 and will have a criminal record.
In addition, if the person is a college student he or she is required by the university to attend ‘alcohol education’ classes or risk expulsion. For being caught with as little as a single beer, students are treated as if they are hardcore alcoholics. The punishment increases on the second offence, and the third offence can carry jail time.