On Monday Latitude News went to Boston’s South Station and asked commuters this: Is there an “American issue” that you wonder how people deal with on foreign shores. Andrew Campanella brought up this query about American life:
That is a complicated question, Andrew.
The primary tool for battling underage drinking is something any American is familiar with: a minimum drinking age. Global drinking ages vary between 16 and 21, and about a dozen countries set no age limit. This variation belies an important cultural distinction: “underage” is subjective.
According to the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), age limits are determined more by culture than by data. ICAP also says there is no global consensus on the effectiveness of a drinking age – enforcement, cultural norms and public education all influence how youth drink.
Of course, a drinking age isn’t the only way to combat “underage” drinking. In Belgium, you can drink beer and wine at 16, but you’ll have to wait until 18 before imbibing a shot of spirits. Alcohol in Finland costs 170% of the European Union average – high taxes deter heavy drinking. Cameroonians drink legally at 18, but someone will have to buy your booze for you until you hit 21. And non-Muslim Gambians can drink at 18, but the country’s Muslims (95% of the nation) are banned from drinking altogether – a common rule in Muslim countries. Click here for a complete list of global drinking ages.
Public education campaigns that target youth are limited only by the human imagination. New Zealanders can visit a website that summarizes the clinical effects of alcohol on every body part – from blood to breasts. Public education websites for youth exist in places like Argentina, South Africa and Romania, where “we believe that beer has a fantastic story to tell and a rich Romanian tradition of hundreds of years.” And then there’s Aspen, Colorado’s Tipsy Taxi, a publicly-funded service aimed at giving intoxicated Coloradans a safe way of getting home.
But the international call for stricter drinking laws is loud and ever-present. In a recent opinion piece in Nature, Devi Sridhar called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to enforce stricter drinking laws on its 194 member states. Alcohol, the health policy expert said, kills more people annually than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.
Andrew Campanella might be surprised to learn that the U.S. is not an Animal House. American teens have been drinking less for nearly every year since 1977, and the U.S. doesn’t get a nod in the list of the 20 drunkest countries.
Below you’ll find a smattering of statistics on nations with varying drinking ages, including the WHO’s “Patterns of Drinking Score” – the higher the score, the greater the burden of alcohol-related disease on the country. To see WHO’s global list of drinking fact sheets, click here.
Minimum drinking age: None
Traffic deaths per 100,000 adults (15+ years): N/A
WHO Patterns of Drinking Score: 3 out of 5
In Ghana, there is a cornucopia of homemade alcohol – akpeteshie, pito and palm wine, to name a few. According to the Global School-based Student Health Survey (GSHS), about one-third of Ghana’s youth between ages 13 to 15 say they have gotten drunk. And health officials have taken notice – a 2008 GSHS report calls for the creation of a minimum drinking age.
Minimum drinking age: 16
Traffic deaths per 100,000 adults (15+ years) in 2003: 22.0 males, 5.0 females
WHO Patterns of Drinking Score: 1 out of 5
About a dozen countries have a drinking age of 16 or 17, and a handful are Mediterranean nations. While Italians appear to drink a lot of wine, their wine consumption – as well as their overall alcohol consumption – is less than half of what it was 50 years ago. While Italy traditionally frowns on binge drinking, Italian youth are bucking the trend.
Minimum drinking age: 18
Traffic deaths per 100,000 adults (15+ years) in 2005: 50.7 males, 14.8 females
WHO Patterns of Drinking Score: 5 out of 5
Russia and neighboring eastern European countries have the dubious distinction of being the heaviest drinkers. One in five men in Russia and its neighbors dies because of alcohol. In Moldova (legal drinking age 16) the average adult drinks the equivalent of four bottles of wine each week. Most countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, have a drinking age of 18.
The United States of America
Minimum drinking age: 21
Traffic deaths per 100,000 adults (15+ years) in 2005: 26.5 males, 10.5 females
WHO Patterns of Drinking Score: 2 out of 5
The US is one of eight countries with a drinking age of 21. We share this distinction with Sri Lanka, Indonesia and a few other Pacific island nations, and Pakistan (drinking is illegal for Muslims in Pakistan). Alcohol use and incidents of binge drinking are at record lows among American teens while disapproval of drinking among youth is at a record high. But abstainers shouldn’t jump for joy – marijuana use is at a 20-year high.