And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee.
Some folks think I'm hidin',
It's been rumored that I died,
But I'm alive and well in Tennessee.
-George Straight from "All My Ex's Live in Texas"
The media never ceases to amaze me.
In case you haven't heard, Tennessee took a tough stand against underage drinking recently when it created a mandatory carding law at all grocery and liquor stores.
At least that's the impression one comes away with looking at the news coverage the new law has created. What they don't tell you is that this law will do virtually nothing to reduce the consumption of alcohol to minors. And secondly, it's an insult to beer drinkers.
At the heart of the issue is the Responsible Vendor Act of 2006, which was sponsored by State Senator Joe Haynes (SB3316) and State Representative Gary Moore (HB3210). What it does is make carding mandatory for all beer sales at grocery and liquor stores in Tennessee starting July 1, 2007. It's the first law of its kind in the union and is on a trial basis until July 1, 2008, when the law is set to sunset. It is widely believed that, if successful, the sunset provision will be removed (pdf, 20 kb). This law does accomplish some noble goals, including eliminating carding discrimination and reducing the positivity bias noted by McCall and Nattrass. A complete copy of the act is available here (pdf, 48 kb).
It's like creating a law that says that you can't buy alcohol for home consumption after 9 PM (in Wisconsin), it just means that people who drink will buy their beverages earlier in the day, having a presumably negligible influence upon drinking habits. If minors aren't able to buy beer themselves, they'll just have other people buy it for them in greater numbers.
Without increasing the penalty for providing alcohol to a minor and stepping up enforcement efforts, this loop-hole will drain the Responsible Vendor Act of any effectiveness beyond encouraging the responsible sale of beer. What happens to beer after its sale is less controlled and even less controllable. I don't know how to prevent the provision of alcohol to minors; I do know that the lack of effective and suitable preventative measures means that this act will accomplish little.
Moreover, the act merely raises the street value and prevalence of having fake forms of identification. Fake identification documents are already ubiquitous as illustrated by an article in the Christian Science Monitor that describes just one of many sources minors turn to to obtain a fake id. I mean, look. I'm not CNN and I'm not going to harp about how this is going to aid terrorist groups, but it does expose a fundamental flaw in the bill and in state-issued forms of identification. So long as identification cards can be counterfeited, this act will have little impact.
In fact, I'm curious to see in what percent of cases underage drinking was due to the failure to card in the first place. Based upon my personal, anecdotal experience, I never tried to buy alcohol before I turned 21. And yet, I had absolutely no problems sourcing any kind of alcohol I wanted. Go figure.
One thing I find most curious is that the bill only addresses the sale of beer for off-premise consumption. Not wine coolers, not wine, not liquor. It doesn't affect bars either. A study put together by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH) determined the prevalence of consumption of beer, liquor, wine, and wine coolers among 18 - 20 year old individuals. Interestingly, only 26.8% of individuals drank beer at home while 62.0% of individuals said they consumed beer in the homes of friends or family. In comparison, 31.1% said they consumed wine coolers at home while 59.1% consumed wine coolers in the homes of friend or family. Similarly, 22.3% said they consumed liquor at home while 61.8% said they consumed liquor at the homes of friend or family. It is clear that beer consumption is only one piece of a larger puzzle. As a result, even if this act reduces the sale of beer to minors, it is unlikely to affect wine coolers, wine, or liquor consumption as the bill doesn't apply to these forms of alcohol.
The same study broke down consumption habits by gender and race. I am not a statistician and could not tell you what a significant difference is between values presented in Table 3. However, upon an uneducated glance, it strikes me that the type of beverage is related to both gender and race. If the act will reduce consumption among men and women, American-Indians and Alaska natives, the hispanic, and college students most of all, it does little to curb consumption among other groups. For example, 5.0% more women drank wine coolers at home than men. Liquor consumption is prevalent among all groups in the homes of friends or family. But this act: no impact. This could be especially hurtful to asians who have the highest rates of out-of-home liquor consumption (70.7%), for example.
In an ideal world, I wish we would instead teach our children to respect beer the way they do in many other parts of the world. Our "alcohol is bad" approach just reinforces the notion that alcoholic beverages only have value in proportion to their ethanol content (I also suspect it undermines our much needed "crystal meth is bad" message). Beer is a wonderful beverage with a rich tradition extending back thousands of years. Why aren't we instead teaching children to appreciate it, within reasonable limits? Abstinence only sex-education may be best in theory, but certainly not in practice. It's the same with alcohol-education.