NEW YORK - Should parents let their teenagers have Champagne at home on New Year's Eve?
One argument says no, it sends the wrong message that underage drinking is OK.
The other side argues that a ceremonial glass of Champagne at home with family encourages moderation and makes a forbidden activity less tantalizing.
Either way, statistics show that no matter what parents do at home, and despite the legal drinking age of 21, most U.S. teens have tried alcohol by age 18.
Seventy-five per cent of high-school students have tried alcohol at least once, according to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 45 per cent had at least one drink in the 30 days before the survey, and 26 per cent had five or more in a sitting during the same period.
John Lieberman, director of operations for Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers, in Malibu and Brentwood, Calif., is firmly opposed to the notion that introducing children to alcohol at home makes them less likely to abuse it later on.
"The studies show that the earlier someone has their first experience with drugs or alcohol or R-rated movies or sex, the earlier somebody does that, the more apt they are to have an addiction or a problem or consequences as a result of that behaviour," Lieberman said.
He said the notion that "if we do this at home, my child will be able to handle it better" is mistaken.
"I have yet to hear a kid say, 'I was 25 years old when I took my first drink, because my parents didn't let me drink, and then I became an alcoholic,"' he said. "At an older age, when someone does decide to drink, their brain is at a different place than when they were 15 or 16. A 15-year-old doesn't have the same grasp of potential consequences."
In Europe, the legal drinking age in many countries is 16 or 17. But attitudes there are changing. Last summer, the official drinking age in wine-loving France was raised from 16 to 18, partly because of increases in teen binge-drinking and alcohol-induced hospitalizations.
Jeffrey Wolfsberg, head of Jeffrey Wolfsberg & Associates, which offers seminars to students and parents on drug and alcohol use and prevention, acknowledged that in some ethnic cultures, drinking wine is a regular part of family meals and holiday celebrations, and children are often permitted a sip.
But Wolfsberg said it's the unique context of such gatherings that sends kids a carefully calibrated message.
"Alcohol is there but it's not centre stage," he said. "That's the value we pass on to the kids - it's not so much whether you do or don't drink. It's that it's not necessary to have a lot to drink, and that the fun we have in our family is not related to alcohol usage."
Wolfsberg, whose extended family is Greek, said that in cultures where wine is part of a celebration, drunkenness tends to be strongly disapproved of, too, so kids also get the message that excessive drinking is bad and that "drinking more is not better."
Wolfsberg said that while most parents don't think their kids are going to shoot heroin or take crystal meth, they do expect that at some point their children will consume alcohol "and we want them to be somewhat responsible about that, especially as they become seniors in high school and go off to college.
"But when we look at who struggles with alcohol-related problems in college, it's not the kids who go off with no drinking experience. It's the kids who have established drinking patterns in high school," he said.
He said that teenage drinkers are often surrounded by "enablers" - friends who drive them home when they're drunk, parents and schools that let them off the hook when they blow off responsibilities. "When those heavy drinkers hit college, they lose those protective walls," Wolfsberg said.
In contrast, "the kids who've gone through high school with no relationship with alcohol, they are not the ones who are at risk in college."
So in Wolfsberg's opinion, should parents allow teens a sip of bubbly on New Year's Eve or not?
"Both approaches are fine," he said, "because it's not so much what's being done - it's the meaning that matters the most."
In his house, kids get sparkling cider on New Year's Eve, but "it's not a morality issue. We just don't think it's a healthy thing, and it is against the law." (Laws on allowing teenagers to consume alcohol in private settings vary by state.)
"As a drug educator, I don't present alcohol as right or wrong, good or bad," he added. "I say, 'This is a beverage. How do you want this in your life, or not in your life?' Because there are risks for teenagers that are just enormous."