Way-Underage Drinking: How Young Is Too Young?

Feedloader (Clickability)

How young is too young to drink alcohol? The answer differs in various cultures, but most would probably agree that a child who hasn't yet developed fine motor skills shouldn't drink anything that would impair them. Even in European countries that have looser attitudes than the U.S. about youthful drinking, toddlers aren't swilling cocktails out of their sippy cups.

But that's what happened a few days ago at an Applebee's in Michigan, where a 15-month-old became intoxicated after being accidentally served a margarita instead of apple juice. The parents (themselves underage) discovered the mix-up when their little boy began talking to the wall and then put his head down on the table. His blood alcohol content was tested at .11—roughly equivalent to what a 200-pound man's BAC would be after six drinks and well over the legal limit for operating a vehicle in most states. Fortunately, he had a designated driver, and he was cut off before he suffered anything more serious than a wicked three-day hangover. Now the parents are suing Applebee's, which has said it is making changes in how it serves drinks to avoid this happening again (it wasn't the first such incident at the chain). Olive Garden was forced to give a similar statement this week when one of its servers in Florida also had trouble distinguishing between sangria and unadulterated juice, in this case, contributing to the delinquency of a two-year-old.

For obvious legal and ethical reasons, little scientific research has been done on the effects of alcohol on young children, but in adults the range that can lead to serious impairment or even death is roughly .30 to .40. In January, a 4-year-old in Alpharetta, Georgia, died with a BAC of .272, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, after her father and aunt allegedly gave her alcohol. Both adults were arrested and charged with felony cruelty to children and felony murder.

In France and other countries that traditionally drink wine with meals, children are sometimes allowed to have small amounts of wine, usually watered down, at the dinner table. But even there, attitudes about the appropriate age for drinking have shifted; the legal age to purchase wine and beer was raised from 16 to 18 in 2009. The purpose was to curb binge drinking among teenagers, although critics of the law argued that it was counterproductive, pointing to the higher incidence of binge drinking in countries like the U.S., where the legal drinking age is 21.

They may have a point—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 11 percent of alcohol in the U.S. is consumed by people aged 12 to 20. A 2009 survey found that 42 percent of high school students drank some alcohol during the past 30 days, and 24 percent binge drank. In 2008, there were about 190,000 alcohol-related emergency-room visits by people under 21.

Like many Jewish kids, my first taste of alcohol was at the Passover table. I don't remember exactly how old I was when I was allowed to trade grape juice for a few sips of sickly sweet Manischewitz, but I do recall the almost instantaneous warm, heady sensation it gave me.

The first time I drank enough alcohol to get drunk was when I was 12. It was New Year's Eve, and my parents left me and their friends' daughter home alone while the adults went out to celebrate. My friend and I raided her parents' liquor cabinet, mixing small amounts from each bottle so their absence would be less noticeable, and then added some melted ice cream. Our cocktail tasted atrocious, but we drank enough to feel giddy at first, then a little nauseated, while we watched MTV. We didn't get caught. As far as drunken teen (or tween, as the case was) escapades go, it was pretty tame.

Though I had wilder drinking days ahead, I'm fortunate I never became a serious binge drinker as a teen or adult. Aside from the obvious deadly stupidity of driving while impaired—there were 1,398 under-21 drunk-driving fatalities in 2009—the consequences of heavy adolescent drinking can be far more serious than a hangover. Research on teens, conducted mostly through self-reporting (those legal and ethical issues again) or on animals, has found that repeated binge drinking can have serious effects on brain and body development. A 2005 report by the National Institutes of Health lists findings on adolescent alcohol use that include: reduced levels of growth hormones in both sexes; adverse effects on the maturation of the reproductive system in female rats; lowered bone density in human males; reduced hippocampal volumes associated with alcohol abuse (that's the part of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation); and long-lasting changes in memory in adolescent rats.

Less serious, but worth noting: in the age of YouTube, alcohol-induced embarrassing behavior can be long-lasting, too.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.