Op-ed: American age restrictions increase students’ craving for alcohol

When I decided to study abroad in the United States I received advice about the drinking culture at American colleges. One friend, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told me that drinking is essential to “fitting in” and “making friends” on campus despite the fact that the legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21. He talked about “Thirsty Thursday,” a term used on college campuses that refers to students’ tendencies to drink and party on Thursday nights because they don’t typically have early classes on Fridays.

Hearing this information overwhelmed me. I feared I would not be able to make friends at Emerson since I don’t drink or smoke. But after arriving, I found that the craving for alcohol among college students in the U.S. is not as scary as people described, but it still exists and most students tend to favor attending parties with alcohol.

The intense drinking culture in college surprised me since none of my friends in college back home in China experienced this. College students in China don’t feel such an intense impulsion and curiosity for drinking alcohol.

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There is a huge distinction between the drinking culture in China and the U.S. The national age restriction for purchasing alcohol in China is 18, and China does not enforce an age restriction for who can consume alcohol, and it is more likely for middle-aged and older people to drink abusively. Drinking is also not considered a fun activity in Chinese culture.

Based on personal experiences, young people in China feel indifferent toward alcohol and do not crave it, most likely because of the pervasive presence of alcohol in China and the lack of drinking regulations. First, people view alcohol as a daily necessity in China—it’s often used as an important condiment for cooking, adding flavor and color to food and helping to suppress the unwanted smell of fish and meat. I remember always seeing homemade rice wine on the dinner table, especially during the holidays.

Moreover, the lack of age restrictions in China contributes to an indifference toward alcohol. In the U.S., whoever purchases or attempts to purchase or possess alcohol under the age of 21 commits a misdemeanor and faces a penalty from $200 to $500, or even the suspension of the one’s motor vehicle operating privilege for up to one year.

Instead of having clear and definite regulations toward underage drinking, there is no age restriction toward drinking in China, which means a five year old could drink alcohol on the street in public. It was not until 2006 that the country passed a law that forbids stores to sell alcohol to teenagers under the age of 18. However, I feel that this age restriction for purchasing alcohol is rarely enforced. I remember buying beer and other liquor at the grocery store for my family reunion and other special occasions when I was in elementary school. No one would ask to see my ID, and no one ever refused to sell me alcohol.

People might think that the absence of a legal drinking age could pose a big problem in China, especially among teenagers. But instead of contributing to abusive drinking, the lack of restrictive legislation and a wider presence of alcohol consumption normalizes alcohol for teens and young adults in China. Thus, they have more of an indifference toward drinking instead of a deep desire to indulge in it.

Additionally, people don’t usually drink for fun in China. Instead, they drink alcohol for business and social purposes, especially among middle-aged people. People tend to drink during important business dinners, family occasions, and holiday celebrations, and to show respect. Drinking gin China is seen as a social skill, thus it became a tradition. For many Chinese people, drinking is rather a mission than an enjoyment. Elders or people in higher positions tend to urge others to drink more. It is rude if someone refuses to drink when an elder urges them to do so. In fact, the Chinese drinking culture in China is such an essential part of cultivating “guanxi” and forging successful business deals that it’s practically considered as part of the job. Since centuries ago, many important business transactions were accomplished around a banquet table among endless cups of alcohol.

Unlike in China, more young people in the U.S. tend to drink abusively. Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism External defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that increases a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume five or more drinks or when women consume four or more drinks in about 2 hours. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is most common among young adults aged 18–34 years. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 58 percent of full-time college students aged 18–22 drank alcohol in the past month, while 37.9 percent of college students aged 18–22 reported binge drinking in the past month.

The age restriction in the U.S. increases the desire for alcohol among underage kids. According to a CNN article, a University of Indiana study of students at 56 colleges found that, after 1984, “in the immediate aftermath of 21 becoming the national drinking age, significantly more underage students drank compared to those of legal age.”

The University of Indiana study also found that “telling persons not to do something often produces the opposite reaction. People value their sense of freedom and autonomy and like to project an image of self-control.” It also says that, according to reactance theory, people tend to enter a reactance motivational state whenever they think their freedom is under unjust threat. And by entering a reactance motivational state, people try to regain their control over their freedom by not complying.

The strict age restriction affects some of my Chinese friends who study in the U.S. A friend of mine from China, who is currently a freshman, used to have an intense craving for wine after she abstained from alcohol in the U.S. She decided to buy Tropicana grape juice every time she went to the Max Cafe because it was the closest thing she could get to wine here.

Though regulations and age restrictions are necessary to prevent abusive drinking among underage people, setting the limit to 21 seems overly strict and fails to achieve its original purpose to reduce alcohol drinking among those underages. Drinking can become unhealthy, but banning it entirely from people under 21 only increases their desire for it.

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