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Tennessee Scopes Out the Future

When I turned 21, oh so many years ago, the state I grew up in — Pennsylvania — still didn’t have pictures on their driver’s licenses. As a result, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board had their own method for insuring that no one under the age of 21 could get served. It was called a PLCB card, though we called our “drinking card.” A few weeks before you reached the magic age when you could drink in public, you went to one of those old photo booths where you got four black and white photos for a few ducats, filled out a form and returned it to any State Store (which in Pennsylvania is the only place where you can legally buy wine and spirits off-premise). Then anytime after your birthday, you returned to pick up your laminated drinking card complete with cheesy photo. I still have mine. Naturally, once they started issuing photo driver’s licenses, the PLCB card was discontinued.

Around that same time, MADD railroaded through the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which effectively took the decision about a minimum drinking age away from the states and created a federal standard by tying it to federal highway subsidies. That was 1984 and since then the drive to make it harder for everyone to get their hands on alcohol in the name of protecting children only grows worse. MADD and the neo-prohibitionists seem never to be satisfied.

So around that same time signs started appearing on retail counters by the cash register that said something like “If You Look 25, You Will Be Carded” or words to that effect. I was around 25 at the time and while it was a little annoying and inconvenient, the novelty of being able to prove my status as an adult hadn’t fully worn off yet. Also, I knew that at 25 many people look young enough to actually be underage, so I could at least understand the rationale for it under the heightened scrutiny the MADD-era had ushered in. But then a curious thing happened. A few years later the sign read “If You Look 30” and then a little later “If You Look 35,” loosely keeping pace with my own aging. It became increasing irritating on those few occasions that I left my wallet at home and looked nothing like a 21-year old. It’s oddly Orwellian to me that I have to have my “papers” on me at all times, constantly having to prove my identity or my status as an adult. At law, we’re presumed innocent but at alcohol we’re presumed underage unless we can prove otherwise.

Now that I’m well into my forties, I’m still routinely carded at some places even though my hair is graying, thinning and I have a goatee that is almost entirely gray and white. I’ve had people tell me that I should be flattered to appear so young but that really has nothing to do with it any longer. Even when I did look younger I felt it was a very weak argument. What’s flattering about constantly having to prove I’m not a child? Most establishments card everybody today not because they can’t tell who’s young and who’s not, but because they’re rightly scared of governmental regulators and what might happen to their bottom line should a minor accidentally slip through their net and get some alcohol. I’ve been old enough to drink more than half of my life now and look almost nothing like the gawky, awkward kid I was 27 years ago. The idea that I still have to prove that I am 21 because MADD and the neo-prohibitionists convinced the state that stopping kids from drinking was more important that my being treated like an adult, and they in turn made the penalty for sellers of alcohol so out of proportion that they have no choice but to overdo enforcement, pisses me off more than I can tell you.


As an aside, something I never noticed before is that we are the only nation in the world where you have to be 21 to drink legally. In every single other country, the age is below 21, the vast majority of countries set the age quite sensibly at 18. In two countries it’s 20 (Iceland and Japan) and in South Korea it’s 19. In many European countries the minimum drinking age is 16 (including Belgum, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands). Ten sovereign states, including China and Portugal, have no minimum at all. I knew as a society we were ridiculously conservative and puritanical, but I didn’t realize that the moral bullys had saddled us with the highest age in the entire world at which we confer full adulthood on our citizens. I think I just assumed we were among the most backward nations, not the out and out leader of looneyville when it comes to the minimum age for alcohol (setting aside, of course, those countries that don’t allow alcohol for any of their citizens). Sheesh, how embarrassing.

But now the state of Tennessee is poised to make it mandatory that every single person in the state must “show the proper I.D.” (a phrase that fairly begs to be said in a thick, German accent) with no exception. One foot in the grave? Too bad, prove you’re an adult. Grey-haired Grandpa out with his grandbabies in tow? Too bad, you just might be wearing old man makeup. U.S. Senator, a position you can’t hold unless you’re at least 30 years old? Too bad, no exceptions. It’s called the “The Tennessee Responsible Vendor Act” and it goes into effect on July 1. As is typical with these neo-prohibitionist programs, it claims to be designed to combat underage drinking. That is, of course, a completely deceptive lie insofar as it will do nothing of the kind. Making a 90-year old person so obviously over 21 that only a person with an I.Q. below 50 (such as someone with a moderate mental disability or a neo-prohibitionist) will not stop one underage person from obtaining alcohol. What it will do is make it more difficult and annoying for everyone, instead of just the people “lucky” enough to look younger.

In their press release of “Success Stories,” the neo-prohibitionist group Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center celebrates their victory in getting this law passed and characterizes the law as “an innovative and strong step in the fight against underage drinking. The mandatory ID provision of this law is the first of its’ kind in the country and establishes Tennessee as a national leader on the initiative to stop underage drinking.” Yet they fail, as does every single other account of this law, to say exactly how or why requiring “anyone purchasing beer for off-premise consumption to present identification” will in any way reduce underage drinking. I think there’s a good reason no one is discussing why this law will reduce underage drinking. It’s because it doesn’t stand up to any logic or scrutiny, so it’s best to just use meaningless platitudes.

The continual raising of the age at which you have to prove that you’re an adult does absolutely nothing to alter the daily millions of individual exchanges between customer and retailer, apart from the ones involving legal adults who are far removed from the threshold age. Kids will always find a way to get alcohol. It’s their very resourcefulness that insures they’ll be successful adults, too. They can still get a fake I.D., of course, and getting an adult to buy beer for a minor isn’t going to stop. Then there’s stealing from parents, neighbors and the like. Kids in my day always found a way, and today’s generations are no different. Making me show my I.D. does nothing to keep the 19-year old behind me in line from using his fake I.D. It’s like all the increased security at airports. It gives only the illusion of actually doing anything to stop terrorism and makes life difficult for everybody in the process.

That Tennessee will be the first state to enact a law making it mandatory that every person wishing to legally purchase alcohol must definitively prove their status as an adult every single time they want to do so is as dubious a distinction as being the first state to … let’s see, how about sue a teacher for teaching evolution. It’s really difficult to not make comparisons to the Scopes trial, because it points out such backward thinking, in my opinion. I have some good friends from Tennessee, so I know it’s not everybody there.

But everything I’ve written about so far isn’t even the worst part. So strap in as I reveal the next part of this law. I don’t want to be responsible for any injuries when you fall out of your chair. Ready? Here goes. The Tennessee Responsible Vendor Act does NOT apply to wine or spirits, just Beer! Yup, that’s not a typo. Grandpa can buy a fifth of Jack Daniels or a bottle of Old Thunderbird without being carded. But throw a six-pack of barley pop up on the counter and it’s a whole new ballgame. The law covers just off-premises consumption, meaning retailers. Restaurants and bars (known as on-premises) are also exempt, so essentially the law targets just people buying beer to drink at home or otherwise in some private or public setting (like a picnic in a park).

According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, some retailers have already begun carding everybody, such as Roadrunner Markets, and they seem publicly on board.

John Kelly, chief operating officer for Roadrunner Markets, implemented the policy last year. Carding everyone makes it less likely that a clerk mistakenly sell beer to someone who is underage, he said, and regular customers quickly got used to having to show an ID. Most now arrive at the counter with their identification in hand.

“The universal carding law means that all retailers are on the same page,” said Kelly. “There will be consistent training of clerks. Customers can expect to have their ID checked at any store in Tennessee that sells beer.”

Of course, they really have no choice so kowtowing makes the most sense, since they want to remain in the good graces of state agencies that have the power to regulate them. That’s the same reason these laws get passed in the first place. No politician who wants to be reelected would dare oppose new laws that claim their purpose is to curb underage drinking.

The idea that beer is singled out like this is infuriating, to say the least, and shows in stark relief the bias against beer that exists in our society. And as the comment above about “regular customers quickly [getting] used to having to show an ID” shows, most people will just passively comply regardless of their personal feelings, not that they have much choice. How do you make your objections known in any meaningful way?

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to oppose these laws simply because they’re sold using protecting children as the carrot, bait no one can afford not to take. Truth and logic count for nothing against the emotions of keeping kids safe. That’s why neo-prohibitionists use this tactic, because they know it’s effective and is difficult to counter. That it’s dishonest doesn’t seem to matter one wit, a fact I find particularly onerous given that so many neo-prohibitionists are also very religious. I guess the goal of another prohibition has its own morality in which the ends justify the means, the slipperiest slope of all.

The ray of hope is that the law expires after one year so that lawmakers have an opportunity to “review its impact.” Perhaps it will enough of a fiasco that it will not be renewed and likewise will not inspire other states to follow Tennessee’s lead.


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