Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Raising the drinking age is fixing the wrong problem

We have a problem with alcohol in this country.  We drink too much, too often, and we do stupid destructive things when we drink, to ourselves and to others.  The costs of this problem are significant

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:
  • Raise alcohol prices
  • ...Reduce alcohol accessibility
  • Reduce marketing and advertising
  • Increase drink-driving counter-measures
  • Increase treatment opportunities for heavy drinkers
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.

*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. 


Nikki Elisabeth said...

It really frustrates me that "The Yoof" are being touted as the source of the problem. And yeah, the points you raise are definitely valid.

But when I see how freely and irresponsibly that alcohol is marketed, it really pisses me off that it's youth that are being targeted here.

And never mind the little things that go on out at bars/clubs. Like the fact that DJs are asked by management/owners to stop playing music that is encouraging people to dance and play something that will get people to evacuate the dance floor with the express aim to get people to purchase more alcohol. Now how is that encouraging responsible drinking??? (Source is the DJ himself)

Brett Dale said...

Your not going to change the New Zealand culture, no matter how many studies are done.

It doesnt help when the role models of young people, are writing books

EG: (Ali Williams) about how they always get drunk and how funny it is.

ScubaNurse said...

My experience when I was younger was that people couldnt care less what they drank, how it was marketed, or who had to buy it for them. Only that they get wasted.

I knew a girl who would tip a little bit of everything from mum and dad's cabinet into a soda bottle, and guzzle that like it tasted good!

Raising the price is by far the most effective deterrent, as shown overseas, but the government doesnt seem to want to upset voters with yet more cost increases.

Another major issue I have is with parents who supply not only thier kids, but other peoples. And thier line is usually "Id rather they did it in my house than anywhere else."
Grow a damn spine and BE THE PARENT! Thats why I think the age should be 18 too, kids leave home for uni then, and there is bugger all anyone can do to stop them getting alcohol.

Boganette said...

Great post.

I drank heavily as a teenager - and according to those ALAC morons I am an alcoholic now because I drink more than six standard drinks a week or whatever their ever-changing ridiculous threshold is. I drank as a teenager pretty much because being a teenager fucking sucks. Everyone is different but that's essentially why I drank a lot as a kid and why all my friends drank a lot. I think the issue of binge drinking needs to be addressed but all the hand-wringing "will someone think of the children!" rants in the media are just ridiculous. My friends who didn't drink took drugs to escape their personal teenage Hell. Being a teenager blows. Fix that and maybe teenagers won't be doing anything they possibly can to get fucked up all the time.

Psycho Milt said...

I've yet to see a convincing explanation why binge drinking is a problem that needs to be fixed, or an issue that needs to be addressed, or whatever. Lots of people like recreational drug use, and it's up to the wowsers to say why this is something the govt needs to discourage, whether the discouragement is to be applied selectively or not. It's really nothing more than a moral panic.

What exactly is the problem to be fixed? Dangerous or annoying behaviour while drunk? Well, if existing laws don't cover this it's easily fixed, so let's fix it. Health problems resulting from alcohol use? Well, excise tax covers the costs of that. Just don't like the fact that people are drinking so much? Well, learn to live with it because it's their business, not yours.

Seriously, anyone got a genuine reason why the govt needs to be fiddling with this stuff?

Hugh said...

Milt: Word

ScubaNurse said...

Because it costs the government money. Like smoking there are negative health outcomes.
Unlike smoking (well, regular smoking anyway) people then do stupid shit and hurt themselves.
ACC conservatively estimates that alcohol is a contributing factor in nearly one quarter of all ACC claims. (thats just accidents not long term health effects of chronic drinkers).
Plus they then make life HELL for the docs and nurses and police trying to help. I had a man swing a punch at me at a road traffic accident because I was trying to get him out of his smoking vehicle after he hit a lamp post.

Brett Dale said...

Yes being a teenager sucks, but why does New Zealand have one of the highest teen drinking rates in the world?

McFlock said...

@milt & hugh:

"What exactly is the problem to be fixed? Dangerous or annoying behaviour while drunk? Well, if existing laws don't cover this it's easily fixed, so let's fix it."

But of course law enforcement is an after-the-fact response, which incidentally is in itself generally regarded as a negative outcome for the individual concerned. Receiving the attention of the justice system is often associated with other negative outcomes e.g. depression, low SES, shortened lifespan etc (although I have no wish to get into a "chicken v egg" debate about any of them). And, as I said, this intervention generally only occurs *after* they have done the dangerous or "annoying" (personally I've never really been one for the draconian ASBO-style laws) behaviour.

Prevention (or at least reduction of incidence) is cheaper for society and frequently the optimal choice for those concerned - many of whom would have made the optimal choice if they weren't trollied at the time.

"Health problems resulting from alcohol use? Well, excise tax covers the costs of that. "

Maybe, maybe not. But it reduces the harm of "health problems" to a strict monetary cost. When the actual non-monetary cost is in the form of head or upper limb injuries, choking on vomit, liver failure later in life, severe gastric bleeding, etc.

There's more than a few case notes in hospital with "PFO" (pissed - fell over) listed as injury cause.

You honestly don't see this as something that might be viewed as a national issue?

Hugh said...

If the focus on binge drinking was purely on the effects of people other than the drinkers, I would be more sympathetic. I don't think law enforcement is the only solution to the problem, and if that's what Milt thinks - I'm not quite sure on a re-read of his post - I might have to qualify that "word".

But if the focus is on violence caused by binge drinking, I think we need to question whether there is a truly causal relationship. A lot of people binge drink without violence and a lot of people who are violent when drunk are violent when not drunk too.

As for the non-financial health impact of drinking, I'm a firm believer in people's right to harm themselves if they want to. If somebody, in the full knowledge that constantly drinking can damage their liver, drinks a lot and ends up with a messed up liver, then I think there's little society can do. Ditto the pissed - fell over thing. We recognise the right of people to bungee jump, go whitewater rafting, rock climb or indulge in other recreational activities that carry a high risk of self harm - why not binge drinking?

ScubaNurse said...

Amen, do what ever you like, however you like, whenever you like.

But pay for the outcome yourself.

Dont go on ACC when you have driven drunk, got in a fight drunk, beaten your partner drunk or just PFO.
If you are responsible for the action, be responsible for the reaction.

Hugh said...

Scuba, if you honestly think it's unfair to expect the public to bear the costs of self-inflicted harm, then you are arguing for a total ban on alcohol. And also, on rock climbing and bungee jumping and all that jazz. If you really feel this way, I don't see how you can support the comparatively half-hearted method of merely shunting the drinking age up a few years.

McFlock said...

1) alcohol issues are so widespread as to incur additional costs for wider society, e.g. repaving the streets around the student quarter in Dunedin because couch fires also burn the tar roading. How is the DCC reimbursed via excise tax for that?;

2) we-ell the alcohol:crime thing (not just alcohol:violence - there's many a wing mirror or stolen sign that can attest to that!) is still up for grabs, strictly speaking, although there would seem to be clear associations (it might be a bit like proving that only lousy drivers choose to drink more before driving).

3) I'm not sure that every 19yo male who decides to get completely rat-arsed in the street does so in the clear prior knowledge of a 300/100k chance of hospital ward admission (beyond observation at ED), a ~1/100k chance of death, or an x/100k chance of ending up in jail.

Hugh said...

1) I'm sceptical that couch burning is a direct consequence of alcohol consumption, it seems to be more of a facet of Dunedin student culture.

2) As you say, up for grabs. But my feeling is that if somebody has violent tendencies that are heightened by alcohol consumption, it's not the alcohol that is the problem.

3) It's always tempting to assume that people who make decisions we don't agree with are lacking in information we have rather than just drawing different conclusions from that information. But even if you're correct, that's an argument for an education campaign, not for restricting access to alcohol. (And as an illustration of why I think you're not correct, how do you think an education campaign pushing the message "Alcohol - It can damage your health" would be received?)

Boganette said...

"Yes being a teenager sucks, but why does New Zealand have one of the highest teen drinking rates in the world?" - We don't have the highest teen drinking rate in the world. I doubt we're even close to the highest rate.

Brett Dale said...

Oh I thought we had the highest teen drinking rate at the world??

muerk said...

What if we just made public drunkness illegal? Out in public you had to be under a blood alcohol limit and cops breathalysed people who appeared drunk. Be tougher on bars serving alcohol, eg. serving drunk people. Make bars supply free water and low cost softdrinks, eg. a self-serve pre-mix machine like Subway.

Or we could just let emergency services/emergency department staff decide the law on the basis that they are the ones who have to deal with the behavior.

Psycho Milt said...

When it comes to drunks, suddenly everyone's a big fan of user pays. A lot of activities people engage in can sometimes end up with the long-suffering taxpayer forking out to clean up after idiots - most sports, cycling, driving, boating, swimming, tramping, you name it. We don't bill those people for the medical costs, the ACC, the search and rescue efforts, the lost productivity etc, and nor should we.

Prevention (or at least reduction of incidence) is cheaper for society...

Sure. For example, outlawing private vehicles would cut crime, injuries, deaths, you name it. But as a general principle we don't penalise everyone for the bad behaviour of a few, we penalise the bad behaviour of the few. What's different about alcohol? Simply being drunk is not and should not be a crime, nor should it be something govts need to be doing something about.

If you think the govt should take action to protect people from themselves, does it need to protect you from deciding to drive when you could have walked? From eating that muffin? Or from having sex with someone you really shouldn't? There's all kinds of poor decision-making that the govt could find ways to discourage you from, but it would be better overall for the govt to treat you like a grown-up.

McFlock said...

Public intoxication, with random breath tests, I think would tip the balance more towards "contempt of cop" law enforcement rather than actually doing anything to improve the drinking culture. For example, I'm sure any of the politicians observed being "tired and emotional" over the last 10 years would not be promptly charged with public drunkenness if the police officer could avoid it, but a youth with a skateboard and a chesty cough might be charged for using vicks 44 (or whichever one is something like 8%).

"User pays" is a philosophy I don't agree with for public goods, and in the case of alcohol it falls down rather dramatically.

As I suspect does the "private vehicle" analogy, because private vehicles also create significant amounts of public revenue and public goods (like easing pressure on mass transit, and public access to larger parts of the country).

I actually agree that being drunk should not be a crime - indeed, I enjoy it probably to an extent that ALAC would frown at. With appropriate consideration for my immediate and long term safety, of course. ;)

But that doesn't mean that the government shouldn't restrict alcohol advertising, make treatment more available, tweak alcohol availability laws to reflect local community desires and make violations a serious problem for businesses, or even examine the use of public service advertising that isn't ineffective and on occasion just plain wrong / offensive / stupid.

There's many a measure between laissez-faire corporate (ir)responsibility and just lining everyone against a wall to be shot.

Fenriswolf said...

I really have no idea how to change the culture in NZ. I really enjoyed being in Austria with my family where drinking is not something to be afraid of, but you're expected not to make a fool of yourself. I have no revolutionary ideas on how to instigate that where it doesn't exist.

Re: enjoying binge drinking, it's an intense, bonding experience. Getting falling down drunk with a bunch of other people is a very similar feeling to training at a sport of your choice until you drop.

When a few drinks later a bunch of strangers are all best friends, everyone is at risk of looking like a moron and no one really judges you, you develop a sense of connection. It is a similar feeling to the bond you form with people when you're working through exhaustion together (kickboxing in my case).

Part of my attraction to drinking was that I always had a good capacity for alcohol, and being able to out-drink men propelled me straight into being accepted as an honorary male, a state where I have always felt most comfortable and miss acutely since becoming more sensitised to sexism. :/

McFlock said...

I'm not actually a fan of "user pays" for public goods, and did not bring it up. However, I think in the case of NZ's heavy drinking culture that "user pays" falls down more spectacularly than usual for the reasons I stated earlier (and probably more than that).

Similarly I think the "then why not ban cars" analogy also falls down: viewed purely from an economic perspective cars probably more than pay for themselves, and the ability to travel widely to out of the way places in NZ on a whim is, I would suggest, both an economic and non-economic public good.

I also think that immediately going to "why make intoxication a crime" is another false analogy: only one commenter has suggested that, and my personal belief is that it'll just be another situation where white middle aged rich folk are not challenged on obvious transgressions but poor brown yoofs are harrassed on suspicion.

BUT the original post pointed out that ALAC had a number of suggestions other than tweaking the drinking age (none of which included outlawing public intoxication), the most obviously industry-challenging was banning alcohol advertising. They could also look at public service ads that aren't so easily piss-takeable, IMHO. None of them involve directly "saving us from ourselves", but they do involve enabling people to make better informed choices about the consequences of our drinking habits.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, so please delete, but this is interesting I thought..