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Friday, 1 June, 2001, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
US teens and the bottle
University of Illinois Student Union
US university life - a four-year party with a $20,000 cover charge?
By BBC NewsOnline's Kevin Anderson in Washington

The US legal drinking age is 21 - which means that if most university students want to drink, they will do so illegally.

But despite being against the law, drinking is an accepted, if not expected, part of university life.

Glasses of beer
Two-thirds of college students have had at least one drink in the last month

There is a joke that university in the US is a four-year party with a $20,000 cover charge.

However, as with the recent incident with President Bush's twin daughters shows, the US still struggles with its attitudes towards alcohol.

Drinking common

A recent Gallup poll of teens aged between 13 and 17 found that 54% thought it was easy to obtain alcohol. For most university students, the fact that drinking is illegal for most of their college careers does not stop them from imbibing.

US Government studies show that about two-thirds of college students have had at least one drink in the last month.

Most universities and university towns have a relatively tolerant attitude towards underage drinking.

President George W Bush watches celebrating graduates during the Yale University 300th Commencement
President Bush understands that students like to have fun - but is enough being made of under age drinking?

During my first year at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, 18-year-olds were allowed in bars in Urbana.

They were not allowed to drink, but they were still allowed to get into a bar. Usually under age students could then get the drinks they wanted from older friends.

Bars on campus were big business, and students played a game of cat and mouse with police during the 'every so often' crackdown on under age drinking.

But despite permissiveness, one learned at university that there was a time and place for drinking and a time and place for acting responsibly.

As a member of the marching band, stories were legend about a group of trombone players, who affectionately called themselves the Jags, who once went to a game drunk.

The Jags were allowed to remain in the band. But not until they had had a serious dressing down that made it clear that drinking was to wait until the after-game parties when the liquor flowed freely.

Binge drinking

But despite the relatively tolerant attitude towards underage drinking, the US struggles with excessive drinking.

Every year, the Princeton Review releases a list of the top 20 party schools. Last year, Louisiana State University topped the list.

But school officials at LSU played down the number one ranking on a campus rocked by the 1997 death of an underage student after a night of excessive drinking celebrating his acceptance into a fraternity.

If we wrote news about everyone who bought alcohol without an ID, we wouldn't have room for any other news

University of Texas Student Newspaper Editor Marshall Maher
A 1997 study found that 42% of college students had engaged in heavy drinking in the two weeks preceding the survey.

Heavy drinking is defined as having five drinks or more at a time.

It is a major problem on some campuses, and excessive drinking mixed with excessive school spirit has led to more than a few outbreaks of violence in the US recently.

This spring, students rioted at universities in Maryland and Arizona after their basketball teams lost in the national basketball tournament.

Public spotlight

Which brings us to the subject of Jenna Bush, who is at the University of Texas, and her twin sister Barbara who is student at Yale.

In an interview with CNN, the editor of the student newspaper at the University of Texas said that the editors had made it a policy not to cover the Bushes any differently than any other student.

And Marshall Maher said: "If we wrote news about everyone who bought alcohol without an ID, we wouldn't have room for any other news."


For most students, drinking, whether legal or illegal, is a part of university.

But for better or for worse, the young women's father is not just another visitor at Dad's Day. He is the president of the United States.

And while most students can drink with impunity and anonymity, the Bush twins lost that privilege when their father took the oath of office.

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See also:

01 Jun 01 | Americas
Bush daughters face drink charges
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06 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Bush satire is TV hit
14 Dec 00 | Profiles
George W Bush: Like father like son?
14 Dec 00 | Americas
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