Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Underage Drinking Theory Pt. II

I'm probably going to bore a lot of people to death with this, not just because it's probably going to get a little technical, but also because it's a bit theoretical. And besides, this is a blog about beer, so why, Dear God, would I go on about one of the single most one-sided hot-button issues facing the beer industry (or any industry, for that matter) today? Well, partly because I'm a little nuts, and that enables me to believe honestly and without pretense that I have the ability to change things for the better.

You can call me SuperMatt. Ooh, or Mattman!

So I've done a bit of research. As it turns out, there is a theory being practiced at college campuses (campi?) across the country called Social Norms Marketing achieves the same ends as the ones I proposed last week, though it does so by different (and much more clever) means. Essentially, the theory goes something like this: a lot of scare-tactic-centric education programs say things like "25% of college students binge drink." (The standard definition of "binge drinking" is absurd and seemingly highly un-scientific, but that's another fight for another time.) The average college student looks at that and thinks, "Hey, that's one out of every four people on campus. That's a lot of people. Binge drinking must be the socially acceptable thing to do." And just like that, binge drinkers they become.

Of course, the flip side to that statistical coin is that 75% of college students do not binge drink. In theory, if that fact (along with the flip side of many "scary" statistics, like how many kids are not in the early stages of alcoholism, how many have never drank so much they blacked out, how many do not have DUI/OUI/other alcohol-related criminal records, etc.) was publicized, the average college student would look at that and say, "Hey, not as many people drink as I thought. Maybe I'm not socially required to do it." This would ease the imaginary peer pressure that college kids are feeling to drink, help to erase the notion of the "Animal House" college experience.

Two of the big proponents of this method are a gentleman named H. Wesley Perkins, who wrote the book (well, edited it, technically) on Social Norms Marketing, and Dr. David J. Hanson, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at SUNY Potsdam and founder of the blog Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. Both of these educators have seen tremendous success with the program at campuses (really, I think campi is a word) across the country. Oppositions to the theory seem to be largely discredited, though that will require a bit more research on the part of yours truly.

As for me, I like this idea. I think the theory has the potential for success not just on college campuses (campi, I've decided), but also in a larger market. I think PSAs in this vein would find a certain modicum of success, not just among underage drinkers, but among those people of age who belong to a certain social class that seems to tout drunkenness as socially acceptable.

My only hesitation with such a practice would be the association of the theory with a certain anti-alcohol group. What MADD did was admirable: the organization almost single-handedly created a culture in America that said that drunk driving was unacceptable -- indeed that it was more embarassing to drive drunk than it would be to take a cab or assign a designated driver. And it seems to have worked in the particular instance of drunk driving. But having a group like MADD employ a social norms marketing campaign, I think, would not be effective for one simple reason: even if binge drinking is not a social norm for young people, being anti-establishment and counter-culture is. So if I were to create an organization like MADD, and if this organization started putting up flyers with statistics like those mentioned above, and if the organization's message was interpreted as, "Don't drink because you think you have to -- lots of people don't," an anti-establishment response to this would be, "Yeah, well screw you, I'm gonna do it anyway!"

I think instead that these messages have to be published anonymously. Young people can't be anti-establishment if there's no establishment to rebel against. They cannot be counter-culture if there's no single voice dictating what culture should be. Instead, they would be forced to take the information at face value as simple facts about their environment: 75% of college kids don't feel the need to get drunk every weekend. No judgements, no intimations, just facts.

Of course, this addresses the issue of underage drinking, but not quite the way I would have liked. I'm of the opinion that regardless of social norms, kids are still going to drink, especially in the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. The objective, I would think, should be to inform minors that yes, we know you'll drink, but it's possible -- and enjoyable! -- to drink responsibly, and really, all we care about is your safety. Still, I think Social Norms Marketing as a theory is a much better alternative to the "zero-tolerance" and abstinence programs currently being implemented in most institutions that house and/or educate minors.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Beginnings of a Theory...

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the rather sudden influx of underage drinking in my little niche of Massachusetts. It's not that high-schoolers getting bombed is something new, it's just that it seems to be happening more frequently around these parts. Now, I'll preface this by saying I have a very close minor acquaintance (we'll call him Steve) who was arrested on bogus OUI charges -- he wasn't drunk, he was in a driveway, and he wasn't even in the car when the cop pulled up -- so I'm of the opinion that law enforcement in this area is a little trigger-happy, but that's just me.

That's not the point. The point is that Steve is smart about drinking. He doesn't go out and get bombed with his friends. More often than not, he's the designated driver when he and his friends hit up a string of house parties. He enjoys cracking open the occasional cold one, and enjoys -- for the most part -- responsibly.

Now, Steve is turning 19 in May. He grew up in a house and among friends who have always appreciated alcohol, especially beer, for all of its delicious goodness. As such he was taught to drink, but to drink slowly and appreciatively the same way you'd savor a piece of flourless chocolate cake the night before you started a diet.

Still, as a society we have decided that it's not okay to allow minors to purchase or consume alcohol. My question is, why? I don't want to get into a conversation about changing the drinking age here; rather, I'd like to examine why it is we feel that people under the age of 21 shouldn't buy alcohol.

It seems as though the commonly held belief is that alcohol makes minors do bad things. While it is true that alcohol has the potential to alter behavior and judgement capabilities, it is not the alcohol that seems to be the problem here, but the person consuming it. When we talk about the dangers of underage drinking, for example, we're not talking about the act of drinking being bad, but rather the irresponsible acts that so often go along with underage drinking in America.

So if we're looking to solve the problem of underage drinking, the solution can't possibly be increased punishment for minors caught with alcohol, or minors caught under the influence, or adult hosts to underage drinkers, or package stores who unwittingly sell alcohol to minors, etc. Instead, a solution would have to contain at its core a message of responsibility. This involves implementing alcohol awareness programs that do not preach abstinence as so many ineffective sex-ed programs do, but rather responsibility.

After all, we're not going to stop kids from drinking. But we can stop kids from drinking irresponsibly.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Doyle Displaced

This man is my hero.

And the company he works for just laid him off.

I don't care how revered Cheers is, how long the bar (once the Bull and Finch) has been around in Boston. When you cut loose the iconic figurehead of your establishment, you thumb your nose at your history, your loyal patrons, your staff, and people who appreciate good men who work hard for themselves and for others.

This man is Eddie Doyle. Eddie is the founder and driving force behind Cheers for Children, which he created in 1980. Eddie has been behind the bar at Cheers for more than 30 years. He is in possession of the single biggest heart in recorded human history. The depth of this man's character is unprecedented. Few men have done more for the town of Boston -- for the children of Boston -- than Eddie.

Eddie is the heart and soul of Cheers. His absence will leave the once iconic beer-lover's destination nothing more than an empty husk haunted by memories of the people who made it the landmark that it is.

I never thought that I'd see the day when the characteristically warm and inviting pub scene in Boston would wield the headhunter's axe so brutally. It is a disgrace to beer-lovers everywhere that Eddie has been ousted. The world has changed, and Eddie -- one of the last vestiges of common decency and genuine unconditional affection left in the world -- has been claimed by the ugliest and most embarrassing display of corporate profiteering to which I have ever borne witness.

Maybe Cheers will survive this economic downturn, but if they do, the only reason I'll be going back is to piss on the stairs.

I encourage you all to voice your displeasure. Email Gail Richman at grichman@cheersboston.com and let her know exactly how upset you are that such an iconic figure in Boston's beer culture has been turned out like a stray dog.

I love you, Eddie. Things won't be the same without you.

The Beer Matt Preview

Pulse Magazine, one of the finest full-color publications in central Massachusetts, has just released their annual Fitness Issue. Beer and fitness? Not really a recommended pairing, despite what Michelob Ultra has to say about it. Still, beer is not without its health benefits. Grab a copy if there's one near you, or check out the article online.

The article is a preview of things to come. The Beer Matt will be a monthly column in Pulse, to debut in March, with everything you'll need to know about beer in Worcester County. The first column comes in two parts. Part one is a profile on some of the brews from Troegs, which recently hit shelves for the first time ever in Massachusetts. Great stuff, Troegs. You'll love the article.

Part two is for the wine-drinkers. Considering the March issue is devoted to environmental issues, this article profiles the Benzinger winery and its certified biodynamic vineyard. If you haven't tried their wines yet, you need to. The stuff is incredible, and as good for your soul as it is for the earth.

I'm always on the lookout for column ideas, so if there's something that you feel deserves press, drop a line in the comments or send me an email.

Happy drinking!

Evicting the monkey from his loft on my back

I quit smoking today.

Actually, I quit smoking on the 6th, the day after my birthday. Why should I be 25 and a smoker, after all? It's not like I smoked a lot -- there was a point where I was up to a pack a day, but that was maybe two years ago. I was around a half-pack. And over the past two days I've been weaning myself off of them, ignoring urges and becoming increasingly irritable until my girlfriend forced me outside with a Parliament Light and told me not to come back in until I had dosed myself and mellowed out a bit. Four on the 6th, three yesterday.

Today I'm on a patch. I won't say which one, because if it fails I'll say terrible, awful things about it mostly as a result of my own self-loathing and completely devoid of any objective reasoning at all. And the company doesn't deserve a non-objective review, though as for that I'm not really planning on going into detail about the merits of smoking cessation aids. You don't care about that. In fact, I don't expect you, dear reader, to care at all about my smoking habit at all.

I'm supplementing the patch with sunflower seeds to quell my oral fixation, resuming a torrid love affair with the little crunchy pellets that has been on-again-off-again since I was an eight-year old in ridiculously tight Westborough Little League uniform. There's nothing in the world quite as nostalgia-inducing as a cheekful of seeds.

So far so good. I muscled through a couple of early-morning cravings (I have to relearn how to drink coffee without smoking, but I've started tasting coffee again, which, I've come to realize, I adore when served strong and black), and finally slapped on the patch around noon. I've got a little plastic cup half-full of slimy black seed casings, and after the initial clawing itch of the patch subsided, so did my cravings.

They say beer will start tasting better once I've kicked the habit. Dead taste buds regenerate after 10 days, which means that on the 18th (two days before Extreme Beer Fest) I'll have a mouth full of tiny pleasure receptors ready to analyze the biggest, most complex beers the world has to offer. Color me excited.

See, I don't want to brag, but I think I have a pretty damned good palate. Blame my parents, who had no reservations about serving me wine with dinner at the age of 14, true to my father's French (and, more recently, Acadian) roots. I can't imagine beer tasting better than it already does. I hotly await my forays into the brand new world of uninhibited craft beer flavor.

Wish me luck.