Children and the culture of drinking

bartenderIn the recently concluded legislative session, a bill was introduced and passed by the Utah House of Representatives on a 63-11 vote that would have done away with the so-called “Zion Curtain.” Wisely, the Senate stopped such poor public policy from becoming law, instead moving to study the issue over the interim. During debate on the legislation, it became clear that some policymakers do not understand the reasoning behind or need for the “Zion Curtain” policy. In an endeavor to fill in the gaps for both policymakers and the public on this issue, the following is an attempt to explain some of the basic ideas behind this unique Utah alcohol policy.

The intent of the “Zion Curtain” is to address the pervasive culture of drinking, to mitigate the influence of the growing acceptance of alcohol use among children. As an illustration of the concept of cultural impact on children, why do we adorn our houses with pictures of family, faith, and natural or artistic beauty rather than with pornographic images or pictures of illicit drugs?

One reason is so that the influence of our homes – our family culture – will reinforce and support good things in our children’s lives. We hope that these regular, subtle reminders of family, faith, and natural or artistic beauty will encourage our children to prioritize and respect these things in their lives. Similarly, a home in which a child is surrounded by alcohol consumption will send a subtle message to a child that drinking is normal and acceptable for them – it will create a culture of drinking.

Of course, no reasonable adult openly encourages children to consume alcohol, yet many reasonable adults often neglect the culture surrounding the drinking of alcohol — if liquor is prevalent throughout everyday life, especially where we eat and drink (as in the most common of chain restaurants), children become acculturated and desensitized to alcohol consumption, which can lead to early drinking.

The “Zion Curtain” may have an especially powerful effect on teenage youth who come from a home environment that includes alcohol consumption. For these youth, a “Zion Curtain” may be one of the few signals they receive during their everyday life that sends the message that the presence and appropriateness of alcohol is debatable, that not all adults agree that alcohol is “no big deal.”

Additionally, the “Zion Curtain” provides significant help for those who struggle, or who have struggled, with alcohol addiction. Just ask a recovering alcoholic how public viewing of the mixing and pouring of alcoholic drinks impacts them, and you will understand how such a barrier provides relief and protection for these struggling individuals.

Utah’s “Zion Curtain” law is relatively new and certainly unique in the nation, meaning solid research on its effects is lacking. What is NOT lacking is research on drinking environments and how those environments affect children. Research is very clear that overt drinking environments lead children to consume alcohol — if the adults are encouraging drinking generally (i.e., a culture of drinking), children won’t have any problems creating justifications to drink. Two studies in particular provide clear evidence of this correlation.

The first study is a “Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking” conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Again, this report shows (see pages 11-12 of the report) that underage drinking is substantially influenced by drinking environments, especially at home where parents are drinkers. Drinking parents who take their children to restaurants that serve alcohol can at least take some comfort that the “Zion Curtain” provides a modicum of discouragement within that culture of drinking.

The second study is from The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. This report, titled “Childhood Risk Factors of Early-Onset Drinking,” funded and supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, states in its abstract, “[T]he variables most predictive of early-onset drinking were having a single parent, sipping or tasting alcohol by age 10, and parental drinking frequency.” In other words, if the personal culture of the child is infused with alcohol consumption, including liquor availability and consumption at regular family eating spots, the child has a greater risk of underage drinking.

Utahns and policymakers should not be persuaded by specious arguments about “no research” on the effectiveness about the “Zion Curtain” law in Utah. This law is about culture — a drinking culture — and small steps that we can take to mitigate that cultural influence on children and recovering alcohol addicts. The success of Utah’s current law is not predicated on some finding that the “Zion Curtain” has direct correlation to stopping underage drinking. Culture is a difficult thing to measure, but its influence has great impact. The fact remains, both in research and common sense, that if children are raised in a culture of drinking, they will tend to drink. Whether at home or at a restaurant, if children are surrounded by a culture of drinking, they can justifiably drink. ‘If mom and dad drink, why can’t I? If fun places like Applebee’s and Chili’s and TGI Friday’s serves drinks to everyone, why not me?’ It’s that simple.