ALCOHOL 101: Tequila Mockingbird — Making Colleges a Safer Place to Drink

Polis: Center for Politics
5 min readApr 10, 2024

Ryan Chen (PPS ‘25)

Ryan Chen (PPS ‘25)

I am an American, born and raised in Hong Kong. I was 18, about to move to the United States for the first time to go to college, when the local consulate informed me of all the rights that I have in the United States.

At 18, I can serve in the military, fight, and die for this country. At 18, I can own and carry a firearm. In fact, I can also vote and have a say in this country’s future, buy a house, get married, go to jail, sue or get sued, sign a lease, take on debt, the list goes on.

Yet, at 18, I am not allowed to purchase or consume alcohol.

This was especially jarring to me. In the year that I turned 18, I spent many an evening in Hong Kong catching up with friends over cocktails and calm music in a city consistently considered to have one of the best nightlife experiences in the whole world. Better yet, I was working part-time at a bar in Hong Kong ranked 17th in the World’s 50 Best Bars, and 1st in Asia’s 50 Best Bars.[1] You’re telling me that I went from serving drinks to being legally prevented from touching a bottle of alcohol?

At the end of my gap year, I left for the States and integrated myself into the community at Duke, along with the relatively ‘underground’ party scene sneaking around state, local, and school regulations. I was struck by another realization: American students don’t know how to drink responsibly. There is a massive culture of “pregaming”, where college partygoers, often aged under 21, consume large amounts of alcohol before going to a party where they might not be able to legally purchase alcohol. I have never seen more people unable to get home until arriving in the United States.

To understand this phenomenon, let’s look at the history of drinking age regulation. In the 1980s, a 21-year-old MLDA was implemented to reduce alcohol-related road accidents amongst teens.[2] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that a higher MLDA also decreases excessive drinking, alcohol dependence, alcohol-induced crimes relating to violence or sexual assault, injuries, and academic performance.[3]

A journal study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) suggests that there is empirical evidence that highway accidents have decreased since the raising of the MLDA, and that countries with a lower MLDA have more accidents.[4] However, the study also concedes that heavy drinking amongst college students in the 18–21 age group did not actually decline as a result of the policy. 4 In another journal study by the NIH where 70% of students at a high school was surveyed, the authors suggest that at least 51% of teens “pregame” before parties, and on average they “pregamed” once every two weeks — due to their inability to purchase alcohol at the party venue. Despite this study being done on high schoolers, one can imagine the far higher extent to which college students pregame in an environment away from their parents, in addition to the fact that studies show that teens between 18–21 did not reduce their drinking habits after the raising of the MLDA.[5] In any case, how does binging alcohol in a short period of time before a party sound like a safe practice? Studies show that “pregaming” leads directly to higher alcohol consumption, undermining the whole idea of decreasing alcohol abuse under the age of 21.[6]

So, what can we do about it? We should decrease the drinking age to 18, the age where teens are officially considered adults. Firstly, this decreases levels of alcohol consumption and abuse because people no longer feel pressured to “pregame” before a party. Although high schoolers under 18 may inevitably still illegally drink, decreasing the MLDA creates a culture whereby safe drinking practices can be developed from a younger age.

Additionally, decreasing the MLDA would also mitigate what Brown Professor Dwight Heath calls the “forbidden fruit syndrome”, where people are more attracted to drinking because it is forbidden.[7] Thus, this creates safer drinking atmospheres where people aren’t as inclined to drink just because it feels “wrong”.

Teens drinking underage is simply a fact, regardless of whether the MLDA is higher or lower. Therefore, shouldn’t we promote a culture in which we encourage teens to do so safely by discouraging the tendencies that cause teens to binge drink, or so that they don’t have to feel like they need to do something “wrong” to feel cool?

1. The world’s 50 best bars: The list and awards. World’s 50 Best Bars. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.worlds50bestbars.com/list/1-50; Asia’s 50 best bars: The list and awards. World’s 50 Best Bars. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.worlds50bestbars.com/asia/list/1-50

2. Edwards, P. (2019, August 23). Why the US drinking age is 21. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/2019/8/23/20828644/us-drinking-age-is-21

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, December 7). Minimum legal drinking age of 21 saves lives. Retrieved April 28, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/minimum-legal-drinking-age.htm

4. Wechsler, H., & Nelson, T. F. (2010). Will increasing alcohol availability by lowering the minimum legal drinking age decrease drinking and related consequences among youths?. American journal of public health, 100(6), 986–992. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.178004

5. Zamboanga, B. L., Borsari, B., Ham, L. S., Olthuis, J. V., Van Tyne, K., & Casner, H. G. (2011). Pregaming in high school students: relevance to risky drinking practices, alcohol cognitions, and the social drinking context. Psychology of addictive behaviors : journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 25(2), 340–345. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022252; Read JP, Merrill JE, Bytschkow K. Before the party starts: risk factors and reasons for “pregaming” in college students. J Am Coll Health. 2010 Mar-Apr;58(5):461–72. doi: 10.1080/07448480903540523. PMID: 20304758.

6. Calhoun, B. H., & Maggs, J. L. (2022). Pregame heavy episodic drinking and its association with negative consequences and other risky substance use behaviors. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 83(6), 793–801. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.20-00481

7. Heath, D. B. (1987). Anthropology and Alcohol Studies: Current Issues. Annual Review of Anthropology, 16, 99–120. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2155865

Ryan Chen is from Hong Kong and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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