Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Decoding Decanter's Message

Recently, one of the “Parent Resource” blogs we link to, Decoder, wrote an entry about an article in Decanter magazine entitled “How To Get Your Kids Into Wine.” The Decoder blogger points out the assumptions made and issues overlooked in the article, and we’d like to discuss some of them and add our own thoughts here.

Beverly Blanning, the author of the Decanter article, jumps right in, arguing that

There has to be an alternative message about wine for children, a way to install an appreciation of its essential qualities from an early age; one that could arguably save them from likely abuse. (emphasis added)

As the Decoder blogger points out, the best way to avoid alcohol abuse is to wait to drink until the age of 21. In fact, youth who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to experience substance abuse as adults.

“It’s awful,” said my friend, “they’re taught at school that alcohol is really dangerous.”

Blanning proves that point by including a quote from the UK’s chief medical officer about how not drinking is the healthiest option for young people, as alcohol can be hazardous to the health, even among older teens. The US Surgeon General agrees, in a publication that came out in 2007, saying that “Underage alcohol consumption in the United States is a widespread and persistent public health and safety problem that creates serious personal, social, and economic consequences for adolescents, their families, communities, and the Nation as a whole.”

Blanning also argues that

the mere existence of magazines such as Decanter, the hundreds of websites devoted to discussing wine and the countless outpourings of individual bloggers and twitterers provide persuasive evidence that in wine's appeal lies more than its capacity to intoxicate.

Our response? Well, yes – there are wine enthusiasts. They are, and should be, adults. For teens, alcohol IS dangerous, and no amount of appreciation of the flavor or scent is going to change that. The human brain doesn’t stop developing until age 25 and drinking definitely has an effect on brain development. In addition, you have to factor in the teenage deaths from car crashes, “accidents” under the influence (like drowning, burning, and falls), and from suicides and homicides. While alcohol used in moderation by adults may not be “dangerous”, it is always a bad idea for teens.

In addition, the claim that because a market exists for something, it must be healthy, is just false. Cigarettes, anyone? Phen-fen? Steroids? Illegal drugs? People wanting to buy something (or talk about buying it) does not prove that it is a good idea.

Next, Blanning relates a conversation with a French student living in London, who says that she was never taught “about the dangers of wine”: “You must be joking… we were only taught about the dangers of strong alcohol – spirits.”

Our response? Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. A 5 oz. glass of wine has the same amount of alcohol as a 1.5 oz shot of liquor. The dangers are exactly the same. Incidentally, this also sheds light on Blanning’s “wine has other qualities besides alcohol content” argument – that may be true, but if someone was looking to get drunk, wine could be as much a culprit as any other alcoholic beverage. And speaking with one French student does not an impartial survey make.

But speaking of impartial surveys, the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs (ESPAD) survey indicates that binge drinking is a huge problem in European countries: On average 43% of the ESPAD students reported heavy episodic drinking (5 or more drinks during a sitting) during the past 30 days.

Blanning glosses over the binge drinking problems that European countries are increasingly seeing (she seems to believe the common myth that “European society takes away the lure of alcohol”). Decoder does a good job of addressing this point, saying:

She also trots out that tired old maxim about all the Europeans who grow up drinking wine at the dinner table as children and then go on to become deliriously happy and high-functioning non-alcoholic adults. Why does this myth continue to perpetuate? I live in Europe and just as it is in the US, adolescent binge drinking is a huge problem in countries such as France and Spain.

In her parting shot, Blanning suggests that some parts of wine can be enjoyed without drinking it, so it’s another great way to introduce wine to children – “the beautiful countryside… the magical, bubbling transformation of grapes into wine…” ad nauseum. She recounts a trip she took with her 9-year-old son; after asking him if he wants to go, telling him it will be fun, and getting a negative response, she says “Luckily for me, he's still in the indoctrination stage – and too young to be left alone in the house – so we went.”

Our response? Parents, we know you’re smart enough not to confuse modeling responsibility and talking with your kids about alcohol with “indoctrination.”

For more information about the role that modeling plays in preventing underage drinking, you can check out our Representing Responsibility handout or our parental monitoring resources.

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