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Raising the drinking age to 21 or even 25 … Will it ever happen?

Every now and again someone will bring up the issue of raising the legal drinking age and there will be a flurry of media interest. Sometimes it will be a politician (Kevin Rudd spoke about it a number of times while he was PM, usually to distract attention from some other issue – raising the drinking age nearly always pushes other things off the front page!) but it is more likely to be a public health advocate as it was today with Ita Buttrose. It would be interesting to know how and why the issue was raised – from reading the news article this morning it sounds as though it was being used to promote a speech she is giving tomorrow night!

It has been interesting to watch the TV breakfast shows this morning and watch the reaction to her comments, particularly her call “to voluntarily restrict the use of alcohol to meal times”. When you actually read the story I’m not exactly sure that is what she said but that doesn’t seem to matter … the response from Mr and Mrs Normal from the suburbs is varied – some horrified by the thought and others keen for governments to make the change. These polarised views are what breakfast television and radio love … but when it really comes down to it, is a change to the legal drinking age ever going to happen?

My answer is always the same – absolutely not! So if it’s never going to happen, why do public health advocates waste their time?

Let’s make something perfectly clear here, if we actually looked at the evidence there is no way that we would allow anyone to drink until at least 21, and for young men it would most probably be 25 years of age before we considered drinking alcohol to be low risk. This is due to the increasing evidence we now have around alcohol and the developing brain. The interesting thing is that at a time when we know more about the harms and that we should definitely delay drinking for as long as possible, many parents are actually introducing their children to alcohol at a younger and younger age.

This is why the drinking age argument keeps popping up – it is a great way of keeping the issue in the public consciousness and highlighting the risks associated with adolescent drinking

Why then do I think we’ll never see the legal drinking age rise? Well, firstly and most importantly, most people simply don’t support the idea (it’s interesting that in today’s article that quotes Ms Buttrose they discuss an Adelaide Advertiser survey conducted last October that found 37.1% of 2085 respondents wanted the drinking age to be raised to 21, while 46.3% preferred the status quo – that’s one of the highest positive responses I have ever seen and I would imagine not necessarily representative). I believe that the reason for this is that many Australians had their first drink before they were ‘legal’ and most do not believe that drinking at that time caused them great harm. Secondly, we have to remember why the drinking age was lowered to 18 in the first place. Although some Australian jurisdictions already had 18 years as the legal drinking age during the Vietnam War, there were other states that had different laws around alcohol. This meant that some young Australians who died for their country during that war were actually unable to drink alcohol, a fact that many found unacceptable (a situation that the US is now attempting to deal with) and the law was subsequently changed.

Certainly we need to keep talking about the risks associated with adolescent drinking but we also need to be careful that we tread carefully … Claims of ‘wowserism’ are getting louder and louder – I believe we have the bulk of the community on our side at the moment, push too hard and we’ll lose them!   

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