May 13, 2014

Horse 1673 - On Raising the Drinking Age to 21

One of the nice things about having a blog like Horse is that sometimes people ask me to write about some particular topic. This is one of those.
Pressure is mounting for Australian governments to raise the legal drinking age to 21 to protect the health of young people whose brains are still vulnerable to the toxicity of alcohol at 18, leading health experts say. 
Four professors of mental health and public health have joined a growing list of influential Australians to call for a new legal drinking age that would bring Australia in line with the US where people cannot buy alcohol until they are 21.
They say raising the age limit would protect young people from the brain damage that can be caused by too much alcohol and the harms associated with being drunk, such as car accidents and violence.  
- Sydney Morning Herald, 12th May 2014

I think that when I was asked to write about this, that the person expected me to write about the issues of alcohol fuelled violence. I also suspect that they wanted me to cite that annoying problem that prohibition in the United States actually worked really well.
Death rates due to cirrhosis more than halved and admissions to mental institutes also more than halved during the period.
Violent Crime rates however, neither decreased nor increased dramatically. Organised Crime became more visible and was even lionised during the period but organised crime existed both before, during and after the period.

Do I agree then with raising the drinking age to 21? No, not at all. The weird thing is that crime rates and public health benefits don't really move me on this subject either. It is fitting that this question be asked particularly this year too, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
Huh? What does that have to do with anything? Let me explain.

In 1914 the drinking age was 21 in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. In New South Wales though, it gets complicated. Under the Colonial Laws Validity Act (1865), laws passed in the British parliament, had legal force in the colonies until separate legislation in those colonies changed the provisions. New South Wales had made no provisions for the drinking age and by default, it remained at 16 (though licensing laws began to restrict the opening hours of premises).

In 1914 though, people aged 18 (and in some cases younger, if they had lied about their age) could find themselves on the other side of the world, in trenches and with a rifle in their hand, facing their counterparts who were also aged 18 (and younger) with a rifle in their hand. More than 60,000 Australian soldiers would lay dead by the war's end; with 137,000 wounded.
Soldiers in the armed forces were rationed two ounces of rum per day.

The reason why I make mention of this is that during World War Two, conscription came into force and was again brought in for both the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The voting age was lowered in 1973 after outrage that it was possible that a person could be conscripted and die for the country but didn't have a say in the government which sent them there.

18 in Australia is the age of majority. At that age, people have the right to vote, the ability to be tried and sentenced in the courts as an adult, the right to sue and be sued and as it currently stands, the ability to buy tobacco products and alcohol.
Given our historical readiness to go to wars that really are none of our business and our past performance to pass acts of parliament to send people to war, by raising the drinking age to 21, are we saying that people are good enough to be blown to pieces for their country but not good enough for the privileges therein?
If we do raise the drinking age to 21, what about the voting age? Clearly someone who isn't deemed legally responsible to handle alcohol, why should they have the right to vote? Should we also raise the ages for ability to be tried and sentenced and the right to enter legal contracts?

These sorts of questions were asked when the national drinking age was lowered to 18 and standardised across the nation in the 1970s . I'm not saying that they aren't sensible questions to be asking in the 1970s. But haven't we asked these questions before?

In New Zealand that general age is 20; it's also the case in Japan. The drinking age across Europe is usually either 16 or 18 and in Germany it can be 14 in some cases. In all of those places except the UK, the rates of bodily harm are lower; and so if raising the drinking age has any merit, then I don't know how that's reconciled.

The other thing I think of when I read a story like this is that I'm 35 years old and any change in the legislation isn't really going to affect me even an iota. I suspect that's probably also true for the vast majority of politicians who would be debating the relative merits of change if legislation to change the drinking age were presented before parliaments.
Maybe there is a alcohol problem but surely that's more of a matter of underlying culture. I do know that a government which wanted to change the legislation though, would suddenly find itself the subject of a lof of 18-21 year olds who have the power to vote them out.
Again we come back to the idea of laws being made on behalf of people without terribly much of their feedback if any and that more than anything else about this irks me.
If people are good enough to be blown to pieces for their country, shouldn't we at very least, ask them about how they feel about the issues which affect them?

The person who asked me to write about this, didn't like the post. "Young people don't know what's good for them; and you can quote me on that"... so I did.

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