Should We Raise the Legal Drinking Age?

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Cocktails with friends

What’s a ‘normal’ Friday night out in Sydney like?

A typical Sydneysider might describe a bustling flurry of movement and excitement as people flock to the many pubs, bars and clubs – even now that lockout laws are in full swing.

Given that the legal drinking age is 18, it won’t come as a shock to hear that many fresh-faced young adults who gather at venues across town are typically intent on getting drunk and having a great time – and not everyone finds this prospect agreeable.

The concept of an ideal drinking age is once again up for debate, with one notoriously conservative NSW politician calling for it to be raised to 21.

The case for raising the legal drinking age

Christian Democratic MLC Fred Nile said in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that medical research supports the idea that alcohol has a serious affect on the developing brain of adolescents, right up until the age of 24.

He said the drinking age should be raised to help fight alcohol-related violence as well as the associated health and social issues.

John Toumbourou, of the School of Psychology at Deakin University, said young people’s brains change in response to alcohol, and they quickly develop a tolerance. He told the SMH that:

“The problem is when you have a drinking age of 18 people often starting to drink at 16 or 17, and that’s the reason why there’s the view that, if you raise it to 21, you’re getting past that secondary school age period. “

Reverend Nile also claims that his proposal to raise the drinking age is not meant to target responsible youths who go out drinking, but those who drink to excess and cause problems.

Intent aside, however, the proposed legislation would fall on a wide enough scale that responsible young people would be affected regardless.

The cost of alcohol-related issues on society

According to a study by the Australian Institute of Criminology, the cost of alcohol on society as a whole stood at just over $14 billion in 2010.

Around 20% of that figure represents the cost to the criminal justice system, while 25.5% represents the cost of traffic accidents.

The rest accounts for the cost to the health system and Australia’s productivity.

The pros and cons of the proposed change

One of the more common arguments amongst those who are against raising the legal drinking age is that minors will always find a way to drink, and making it illegal for those under the age of 21 to drink at venues means they will simply drink elsewhere, and may not be as safe in the process.

On the other side, consider some of the findings around traffic accidents that came from New Zealand after the legal drinking age there was actually lowered from 20 to 18 in 1999. According to a long-term study carried out by Massey University, the lowering of the drinking age is linked to a higher risk of alcohol-affected drivers being involved in serious crashes.

The study compared the serious crash risk of those aged 18 to 19 compared to those aged 20 to 24, finding the younger age group had a 21% higher chance of being involved in an alcohol-related serious crash.

By the same token, alcohol-related crashes in the US were reduced after the legal age there was set at 21 in 1988. One study found that the percentage of drivers aged between 16 and 20 with a positive BAC who were fatally injured in crashes declined from 61% in 1982 to 31% in 1995.

Do people actually want the drinking age raised?

What is interesting is that support for a change in the legal drinking age appears to be steadily growing.

Data collected from The National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed that, surprisingly enough, support increased from 40.7% in 2004 to over 50% in 2010.

The reason something like this is so significant is not due merely to the growth itself, but that it could perhaps suggest a surge in the amount of young voters who agree with the proposed change.

Specifically, overall awareness about the dangers of alcohol and driving under its influence may in fact be a contributing factor to this sway in opinion.

But shouldn’t we be treating adults as adults?

This proposed legislation does bring into question whether or not society truly recognises an 18 to 20-year-old as a responsible adult.

Considering the age of voting in Australia is 18, not to mention the ability to join the armed forces and the right to be tried as an adult, doesn’t it follow that this age group should be able to consume alcohol?

To feasibly remove one of these privileges or even to just edit the terms of one of them requires evaluation, even if good reasoning exists for pushing this and similar policies.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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