OK, let's be honest here. For most of us who are 'of a certain age', we grew up in an era when the laws on underage drinking were not enforced with the rigour that they are today. Although going to a pub and drinking was not allowed for anyone under 18, the reality was that if you looked about 18-ish-or-so you were probably going to get served in many places without question. Indeed, we knew the kind of places where we were most likely to be checked or refused - town centres, night clubs and so on. In the 'local' pubs (assuming the landlord didn't know our parents and therefore our age!), things were generally likely to be pretty lax.
This has changed completely, and we have reached a point where in some places anybody who looks as if they might be under 25 (in most places it is 21) gets their ID checked just in case someone under the age of 18 slips past and gets themselves an illicit pint. Is that not just a little over the top?! We have effectively encouraged and atmosphere of 'not 18 until tomorrow? Alcohol is evil and bad and you must not touch a drop' followed the very next day with 'it's your 18th? Come in, drink as much as you like - look at our great offers on spirits...etc.'. Over the same period, we have seen a general rise in the 'binge drinking culture', and a general change in the social attitudes of many away from responsible 'social drinking' (and the 'local' pubs have suffered as a result, since they don't usually provide the same level of 'binge drinking service' as town centre bars and clubs). I think we have to question whether these things might actually be linked in some way.
Let's consider the formative drinking experiences of people around my age (mid 40s - it's OK, I'll admit it!) - of course there were some parties and some over-indulgence (and even some 'having a few cans in the park' from time to time), but actually much of that teenage early learning about alcohol and how to use it was taking place in local pubs. We were able to go to the pub, sit down with a pint in a calm and monitored atmosphere under the watchful eye of staff and adult peers who would stop anything from getting out of hand. The people around us were mostly 'social drinkers', popping out for a few pints and a friendly chat rather than 'getting hammered' and 'partying all night'. That is what we were influenced by, and what we learned to be the 'normal' way of enjoying alcohol. Of course, there were some very drunk people and some trouble-makers from time to time in the pubs, but they were usually a pain in the backside to us (as much as everyone else there for a social drink) who quickly got thrown out.
Contrast that with the formative experiences of today's under 18s - that kind of experience of social drinking is now no longer available. Of course there are some who will go to the pub with their parents occasionally without drinking, drink safely and moderately under parental supervision at home, and so on, but society still says that them drinking is 'taboo'. What better way is there to make a teenager want to do something than to make it 'taboo' in that way?! It is, of course, nonsense to think that under 18s can't get hold of alcohol at all - the reality is that they can and they will, no matter what we do to try to stop them. If we can't stop them, how about we let them do it in a reasonable and responsible atmosphere?!
I am a parent of a 17 year old (and also of a 22 year old). Would I rather he were going to the local pub and having a few quiet drinks with friends in a supervised and responsible adult atmosphere, or would I prefer that he was in the park drinking strong cider and doing drinking dares with a bottle of spirits that one of the group has managed to get hold of from somewhere? For me there's no contest! As it happens in my case he works in a pub kitchen with his mother anyway (as did his elder sibling), so thankfully it isn't an issue, but for many others really it is.
Indeed, beyond that would I rather he was learning that spirits, shorts, over-stength ciders and alcopops are great because you get really drunk really quickly, or learning that a pint lasts longer and provides better value for money to sip and enjoy while you are sitting having a chat with your mates over the course of an evening out. That's an important issue, too - in a local pub scenario where socialising is the priority rather than just getting as wasted as possible as quickly asd possible, I suspect people learn quite quickly that a few pints of draught beer or cider makes your money go further, and gives you a more enjoyable evening overall, than drinking double vodkas that disappear in a couple of minutes.
Much has been said about comparing our drinking culture in the UK with that of other European countries where alcohol is equally commonly used, but where the issues of binge drinking are much less. I think most people now acknowledge that a major difference is the way in which young people grow up around moderate alcohol consumption being a perfectly normal part of their social experience in a way which it is often not in the UK.
We have to consider, I believe, what kind of messages we are inadvertently sending with our current system - we are allowing our young people to think of alcohol as 'taboo' and therefore 'cool' (yes, I know - people my age shouldn't say 'cool' - I promise I'll steer clear of 'swell', 'groovy' and being a 'hep cat'!). We are promoting alcohol as something that is too dangerous and 'edgy' for them to be allowed to drink even in a relatively controlled atmosphere. The inevitably result of that is that they are going to try every way that they can to drink it in an uncontrolled atmosphere, and I'm going to suggest that there is then a strong likelihood of them continuing beyond their 18th birthday with that habit of uncontrolled drinking.
So how can we deal with that? Should we just go back to generally ignoring the law? I don't actually think that that is a good lesson for teenagers to learn either! There is currently (rightly, in my opinion) a strong move towards defining 16 year olds as sufficiently responsible to be able to cast a vote in elections. Why do we not extend that principle? If they can be trusted to vote, can they not be trusted to have a quiet pint of an evening, if we give them a suitable place to learn to do that responsibly?
Now I'm not suggesting a blanket lowering of the drinking age - far from it. Allowing 16 year olds to head for town to go clubbing isn't exactly going to help in the way I'm suggesting, and nor is popping to Tesco for a bottle of Value Vodka! What I'm talking about is having a different licensing definition for 'local pubs', as opposed to town centre bars and clubs, and allowing 16 year olds to drink in those local pubs in a safe and responsible atmosphere (perhaps with specific additional licensing requirements that '16+' pubs have to meet regarding staff training, operating procedures and so on). That would, of course, have a potential positive effect on the issue of so many local pubs going out of business, but that's really only an added bonus.
My main concern is that we are being so overly strict with our teenagers that we are pushing them into a dangerous form of rebellion that creates a set of attitudes that continue into their adult lives. We should be allowing them to learn, in a suitable place, that there's nothing wrong with moderate and responsible social drinking, instead of teaching them that alcohol is so dangerous that they mustn't touch a drop until they are able to go and binge on as much as they can get their hands on. We shouldn't be making their drinking influences and 'heroes' the lad down the park who can down a bottle of cheap vodka and pass out in quite the way that I suspect we currently inadvertently are.
We have to address the issues of the binge drinking culture in the UK, and I think we should try to do that in a Liberal way of encouraging personal responsibility rather than trying to impose and enforce more and more draconian rules and regulations. As I recall one TV doctor saying, 'everything in moderation, including moderation' - we will never stop people having a night out that goes a bit over the top, but I think that people who grow up to understand that drinking is something to do moderately and socially rather than it being effectively socially essential to get hammered every time you go out are likely to do it less often, and even handle it better when it does happen. We won't change things overnight with this kind of solution, and nor will it solve all of our problems with alcohol consumption in the longer term, but what I think it might do is start to bring about a change in social attitudes among the young back towards moderate social drinking and away from the current binging.
By telling teenagers who are old enough to do all of the things that 16 year olds are allowed to do (including, perhaps, vote) that we can't trust them to have a moderate social drink in their local pub, I believe we are sending them the wrong message. We are banning them from 'the fun', so that they yearn to 'take the fun to the maximum' whenever and however they can, and to continue doing so when they finally get unrestricted access to it. How about we show just enough trust in them to let them learn about drinking in a responsible way, in a controlled atmosphere, and before they are given the key to the full drinking cupboard, so to speak, at 18.