America’s Odd, Dysfunctional Relationship with Alcohol


The Superb Owl is being held in the Phoenix area this weekend. The entire downtown core of the city has been given over to a large party zone. There are all sorts of interesting events and stuff, including things like a rock climbing wall. None of it interests me, but I did notice that one of the things they’re doing is allowing alcohol to be carried openly and consumed out in public.

Let me restate that: a perfectly legal product is being openly consumed in public.

800px-Edouard_Manet_-_At_the_Café_-_Google_Art_Project

America has a very odd relationship to alcohol. I think this is something where the rest of the world is really ahead of us. Alcohol, once prohibited under…well, Prohibition, is legal to buy and consume in almost all of the United States (save for a few dry counties), but you can only do this if you’re 21. If you’re 16, you can drive a ton of moving steel down a road at 55 miles per hour. If you’re 18, you can vote, smoke, and fight, and possibly die, for your country. But you have to be twenty-one before you’re allowed to have a drink.

Of course, almost no one actually waits until they’re 21 before they have their first sip of alcohol (usually beer). I was very much the exception in that I didn’t have any until I was 25, but almost everyone I knew had at least a taste well before legal age. Sometimes their parents are even ok with this. Consider the scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the father shares a beer with his son. This is technically illegal, but no one seems to care.

Even in this country, which has the First Amendment and freedom of speech, there are restrictions on alcohol advertisements on TV. You can show almost anything you want…but you can’t show people actually drinking whatever is in the glass/mug/whatever in front of them.

To further complicate things, no only do you have to be 21 to buy alcohol (the only product in the United States that carries that requirement), but in almost every jurisdiction, you can only buy it during certain times of the day. Here in Arizona, you can only buy it between 6:00am and 2:00am. Work a late shift, get off at 2:30, and you want to buy some beer to take home and drink while having dinner? Too bad for you. It used to be worse, in that we had a Blue Law that didn’t allow for alcohol to be sold on Sundays before 10:00am.

Let me remind you: this is a legal product in a capitalist society.

It gets even weirder, though, with what I mentioned a the top of the article. In most places in the United States, it’s illegal to drink alcohol in public. I can buy a 64oz soda and walk down the street, sipping away while smoking a cigarette, but if I had a 12oz bottle of beer, and was walking along without smoking, then I could be arrested. I’d almost certainly have more people clucking their tongues at me.

I really don’t understand all this. I think that part of it stems from our stupid Puritanical past. Clearly the various Blue Laws are motivated entirely by religion, or they wouldn’t happen on Sundays. I think the rest of it is also motivated, at least in part, by religious concerns. I think there is also a “think of the children!” vibe. Yet people seem ok with folks walking down the street smoking.

To me it boils down to this: alcohol is a legal product with an age restriction, like cigarettes. Since it is a legal product, there should be no time limits on when it is sold, nor any rules about consuming it in public. If someone is wandering down the street being drunk and disruptive, address that issue with them, but don’t punish everyone else who want to simply have a drink or two while out and about.

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