Chris Swonger had already signed up to lead a publicity campaign warning about underage drinking across the US on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when a deadly crash in his home town earlier this month drove home the timeliness.
A teen motorist suspected of driving while intoxicated despite being under the legal drinking age crashed into another car and killed a high-school basketball player named Braylon Meade on 11 November in Arlington, Virginia. Meade’s community grieves for a life cut short while the other teen at the center of the case faces an involuntary manslaughter charge.
“Two families are suffering,” Swonger said. “It’s just terrible.”
That’s the kind of stuff that gives Swonger, a father of 14- and 16-year-old boys, nightmares. Especially with the arrival of the holidays, during which many Americans will be drinking.
Swonger, in his position as president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, is trying to do something about it. The We Don’t Serve Teens campaign calls on barrooms, other establishments and homes to not supply alcohol to minors, especially as many Americans start celebrating Thanksgiving this Thursday by imbibing the day before.
Swonger recently spoke with the Guardian about We Don’t Serve Teens and how revelers can support it throughout Christmas, the New Year and beyond. A summary of the conversation follows.
How much underage drinking goes on these days?
The good news is that fewer US teens are drinking alcohol than ever before. More than three out of five have never consumed it, according to a 2021 Monitoring the Future report, Swonger said.
So why is We Don’t Serve Teens needed?
The potentially bad news is that the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a day on which many Americans choose to drink hard, including to the point of unconsciousness and memory loss, according to Swonger. Few people work on Thanksgiving, and many college students are home with their families and have the chance to catch up with friends from high school over drinks. The day had earned the nickname “blackout Wednesday” by 2014, which is as far back as the search history for the term dates on Google, and it has helped Thanksgiving prove to be more deadly than Christmas in terms of crashes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Even with underage drinking at relatively low numbers, a lot of it still happens on days like that, and the US Federal Trade Commission teamed up with alcohol manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers of beer, wine and other spirits to mitigate it as much as possible. We Don’t Serve Teens is one product of that partnership, using social media and other digital marketing to call on suppliers, retailers and customers to avoid serving, selling or providing booze to anyone below the legal drinking age.
How can you help if you’re not in the industry?
Those who aren’t alcohol industry suppliers or retailers can do a lot, Swonger said. Sixty-five percent of children between the ages of 13 and 17 report that their parents are the strongest influence on whether or not they drink.
So parents can let their teens know that they don’t want them to drink, that most teens in fact don’t drink and that there’s a number of phrases to which they can resort to turn down a drink, from, “No, I’ll pass”, to “No thanks, that’s not my thing”.
“This has got to be a community effort,” Swonger said. “The alcohol beverage industry has a role, and that’s why we’ve launched this … campaign. But everybody’s got a role in communities all around the country.”
Is there anything you can tell adults who allow teen drinking at their homes, arguing that it’s safer there?
The overwhelming majority of parents in the US support the legal drinking age, according to the campaign’s research. About 92% say it’s not acceptable for another parent or adult to serve alcohol to their child or someone else’s, which can carry legal consequences, depending on the state they’re in. Those same parents also say it is wrong to ignore teens’ alcohol consumption.
Speaking up about those facts could make all the difference, Swonger said.
“Some kid right now is living their life, looking forward to going home, coming back in December to do their final exams and so forth,” Swonger added. “And there’s going to be a kid like that who is going to die next Wednesday night, right? And so the whole We Don’t Serve Teens campaign and the whole effort is to try to prevent this.”