Friday, May 4, 2012

New Drinking Age Won't Work

A bill is before the New Zealand Parliament to raise from 18 to 20 the age at which alcohol can be purchased from "off-licence" retailers (i.e. anywhere you can purchase and take out).  This is justified on the grounds that young people are abusing alcohol consumption, despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence that people in this age group are any more likely to drink to excess than, for example, 80 year-olds (and in my personal experience, 80 year-olds tend to drink more than 18 year-olds).  But even if there were, this reversal of previous liberalising laws is, in my opinion, a foolishly retrograde step.

Eighteen is the age of majority for almost everything in New Zealand.  At eighteen, you can get married, enter into contracts, buy a house, start a business and be held responsible for your choices in almost every aspect of the law.  In some cases the age of majority is lower, e.g. lawful sexual consent is at the age of 16, and, in the matter of criminal responsibility, children as young as 12 can be tried as an adult.  In view of the fact that young New Zealanders are considered responsible enough to do all of these things at a younger age, it is hypocritical nonsense to say that a 19 year old is not old enough to responsibly buy a bottle of wine to take home for dinner.

The other reason it is downright stupidity to lower the drinking age is that all historical evidence points to the fact that the prohibition of social mores does not work.  I am currently writing a book about Prohibition in America in the 1920s and my research has shown that the misguided attempt to ban all alcohol sales in America had exactly the opposite effect of that intended (in New York, for example, the number of liquor outlets more than doubled from around 15,000 to an estimated 34,000 during Prohibition).  History tells us that if prohibiting 18 and 19 year olds from purchasing liquor for off-licence consumption has any impact on youth alcohol abuse, it will be to make things worse.

This knee-jerk, Puritan, paternalistic change is offensive and dumb.  It is about time we started treating our young adults as adults.  Let them make their own choices and hold them responsible for those choices.

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