Last night while having dinner with CR, we briefly discussed alcohol drinking limits, teen drinking, etc. (very briefly, mostly in the context of our former teaching careers). I just checked and I don't seem to have ever written about this here before, so I thought I'd let y'all know my thoughts on this topic.
I don't think strict prohibition until the age of 21 works well. I think there's some allure of the forbidden (particularly with teens) but more importantly makes it hard for families to teach teens to drink responsibly. A progressive introduction more like the German's* have makes more sense to me. The parent of a young teen (14?) can order an alcoholic beverage for their child at a restaurant. (I doubt anyone requires documentation for the age of the child or the exact legal relationship of the adult and teen, I assume it's kind of at the discretion of the server/manager/...). Later (age 16 perhaps?) a teen can order alcoholic beverages as long as there is an adult in the party, again at a restaurant or café. At 18 one is an adult and has all the privileges thereof.
But more important than the laws are attitudes and modeling.(Please note I'm not an expert in the field, have not raised any children,...) If parents (and the rest of the family) model responsible behavior and have less of an 'all or nothing' attitude then the kids are less likely to binge drink. Notice I say "less likely" not "won't" because nothing, short of the absence of all alcohol, can completely eliminate binge drinking. Teens are, on average, impulsive, poor judges of risk, and susceptible to peer pressure - these three things together don't make teenagers the best decision makers. On the other hand they aren't completely imbecilic robots who do everything their friends say either. I think if parents drink responsibly around their kids, show a dislike for excessive drinking and talk about it, be honest about their own youthful excesses, and even let kids taste drinks if they want (did you like beer the first time you drank it?), the children will grow up with a healthier attitude toward alcohol. Research even bears this out.
I read an article (or heard a story on NPR) about a study+ that looked at first-generation Irish- and Italian-American families (parent's born in old country, kids born and raised in US). In general the Irish-American families practiced strict prohibition^ until one 18 years old; alcohol was often drunk outside the home; and drinking to drunkeness was accectable. In the Italian-American households children were given age-appropriately sized glasses of wine with dinner, alcohol was mostly drunk with the meal; and excessive drinking was not socially accectable. The researchers followed the children in these families into adulthood and the Italian-Americans were less likely to binge drink as teens and young adults and had a lower incidence of alcoholism than the Irish-Americans.
There will always be teens who get wasted every Friday night but maybe if we change our attitudes about alcohol and teens then it could be fewer?
*At least as I remember from discussions in class 15 yrs ago. And, no, I don't know about any other European nation's laws.
+If I had any idea where I'd read about this I'd link to it but I read the article at least 6 months ago.
^except for communion wine for the RCers, of course