Brown professor Dwight B. Heath recently made some waves with his suggestion that the drinking age be lowered all the way down to 8 years old, or perhaps even 6. To be clear, he is not advocating that children should be out drinking, but instead that the United States should move towards adopting a different cultural model that emphasizes family involvement.

drinking age

Lower drinking age a cultural norm in other countries

Such a proposal would likely meet stiff resistance in the United States, which currently has one of the highest legal drinking ages in the world at age 21. In most European countries, drinking with family, even for children, is a cultural norm and people as young as 18, or even 16, can purchase booze.

In France, Italy, and other European countries it is common to give children a small glass of wine or another alcoholic beverage at dinner. Certainly, parents aren’t trying to get their children drunk but instead to educate them and to even remove the taboo, or at least “cool factor” of drinking.

Are Europeans Really Better At Handling Alcohol?

While it is commonly believed that European countries are better at managing alcohol, the case isn’t so clear cut. A Department of Justice study, for example, found that more European youth reported drinking within the last 30 days than their American counterparts.

European youth were also more likely to drink five drinks in a row and half of all European countries had higher intoxicated rates than the United States. For example, 66 percent of Italian youth reported drinking in the last 30 days, while only 39 percent of American youth reported the same.

This data, while interesting, doesn’t drive to the crux of the question, however. Europeans may be drinking in higher rates than Americans, but are they drinking more responsibly? A survey of 13 to 15 year old girls found that a whopping 30 percent of girls reported binge drinking within the last 30 days. In comparison, in France only 12 percent of girls reported binge drinking. In Austria, however, 28 percent reported binge drinking.

Drinking among children does appear to be a major problem. Some 90 percent of all alcohol consumed by American teens is done so as part of a drinking binge, vs. 50 percent of adults. This means that when children are drinking, they are drinking to get drunk.

The United States is not alone in its status as a binge drinking country. Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and other countries also exhibit high levels of alcoholism among both teens and adults. Still, Western European countries that do normalize drinking and emphasize family values do, in general, seem to exhibit lower levels of drinking.