It seems to me that the problem is actually "how we're drinking", to quote ALAC (of whom I am not the World's Biggest Fan). The how seems to be that we binge drink, i.e. we drink a lot, quite quickly, and we do that often. Surely the question that flows naturally from that is why we are drinking in that way. Why do people feel the need to get really drunk, frequently?
I don't understand why people actively want to get totally blitzed, not really, because I've never been drunk. I'd be interested in your feedback on reasons in comments. Your experience will probably be vastly more informative than mine. My teetotaller stance isn't something I intend to go into in this post (although I think we could probably benefit from some research on why people choose not to drink, and/or not to binge drink), but it's not based on religious or health grounds and I have spent a lot of time in the company of drinkers. My friends started to drink when I was about 13, the usual North Shore stuff I expect.
How does shifting the purchase age for alcohol back and forth between 18 and 20 actually address the key issues of how and why people are drinking as they are? Because it's not as if it's only 18 and 19 year olds who are drinking in harmful ways.
I understand that there is research that shows that any alcoholic consumption before the brain is fully matured can do damage.* But there's no suggestion that the purchase age be based on whether or not someone's brain has finished developing.
I understand the concept of "bracket creep". The theory is that because people will start drinking younger than whatever the purchase age actually is you need to increase the legal age to increase the actual age. Kind of like the idea of always asking for more than you want at negotiations, because then you have some wiggle room to come down to your real bottom line. But this isn't a case of negotiating pay or conditions or something else, this is supposedly a health issue, at heart. And again changing the purchase age seems to me a very crude way to try to change the age people actually start drinking at.
I also understand that the drinking habits we establish as youngsters are important indicators of how we will (ab)use alcohol throughout our lives. But again, that's not something the purchase age directly addresses. Given that most people drink prior to whatever the legal age is, often at the behest of their own parents, the drinking habits conversation is actually one that needs to happen with older adults, to get them thinking, and changing, the way they view alcohol and the way they role model their own drinking habits to others. Jacinda Ardern outlines this well in a post at Red Alert. Queen of Thorns also makes some excellent points on this part of the equation.
Further on that last point, by way of example, I remember when I was about 15 I was around at a friend's house (she was the same age as me) and her father gave her 13 year old brother a beer so they could drink together while watching something on TV. The father absolutely refused to give his daughter one. She was outraged at this sexism (which was an ongoing issue with her father in a whole range of areas) and it seemed to me incredibly strange. How could it be healthy to encourage a 13 year old to drink and unhealthy to do the same for a 15 year old? Do penises somehow work as magical wards against alcohol-related harm? Weirdness.
When we had this debate back in 1998/1999 I was firmly against lowering the drinking age to 18. I was an elected representative of an organisation that did support changing the age, so I shut up about my personal views in public fora and accurately represented the views of members. And since then I've totally changed my mind.
At 18 we are adults. We should be treated like adults who can make our own decisions about our bodies. If the health concerns are the real motivator behind having this debate, yet again, then wouldn't it make more sense to look at some of the measures taken to reduce tobacco smoking? After all the purchase age for smoking is 18 too...
How about instead of endlessly wringing our hands about 18 or 20 we actually think about some of the other measures Alcohol Action NZ proposed. There were five more, not that anyone seems to remember:
And perhaps we could start thinking about why people drink the way they do. What is it that is so attractive about being out of it? No doubt there's already some excellent research out there that delves into just that. I hope some of it gets a run on the opinion pages and on our current affairs TV sometime soon.
- Raise alcohol prices
- ...Reduce alcohol accessibility
- Reduce marketing and advertising
- Increase drink-driving counter-measures
- Increase treatment opportunities for heavy drinkers
*If anyone has any links to this I'd appreciate the sharing, as it's something I heard quoted often many years ago and while the idea stuck the source didn't.