Paul Dillon

Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA)

With the discussion around alcohol-related violence reaching a fever-pitch over the Christmas/New Year period it was not surprising to once again see the issue of raising the legal drinking age brought up once again. Over the years that I have been working in the alcohol and other drug field calls for the drinking age to be raised to 21, as it is in the US, ring out fairly regularly.

Maybe I’m being a little cynical here but you often need to look closely at who made the call and when they made it to see how serious the person was … e.g., often it’s a politician attempting to distract attention away from other issues (Kevin Rudd spoke about it a number of times while he was PM) as discussing raising the drinking age nearly always pushes other things off the front page! Other times it’s not so much a ‘call for action’ but an ‘off the cuff’ comment made by someone in the public eye (e.g., Ita Buttrose found herself in the middle of the debate recently when reporters discovered she was going to say something about the issue in an upcoming speech). Certainly those of us in the public health sector often raise the issue when we can and certainly while the community is concerned about alcohol-related violence and our binge drinking culture it’s the perfect time!

Whenever the possibility of raising the drinking age is discussed it is absolutely fascinating to sit back and watch the different reactions. Talkback radio (and now TV) goes crazy and 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 the tabloid media 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. If they’re not providing the alcohol to their teens, growing numbers appear to be turning a blind eye to, or tolerating their child’s drinking.

This is why the drinking age argument keeps popping up and why we keep talking about it – 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, I believe that most people simply don’t support the idea. They may be outraged at seeing young teens drinking but for many of them, when it comes to their own children, they don’t necessarily want them to drink but they often see it as ‘just something all teens do’. The old – “I did it, there’s nothing wrong with me!” mentality. Many Australian parents had their first drink before they were ‘legal’ and most do not believe that drinking at that time caused them great harm. If you can’t get parental support for a legal drinking age of 18, how in heavens do you hope to get community support for 21?

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 prior to the Vietnam War, 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, particularly on this issue!