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No drinks before 21: call for debate


AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton has called for a national debate on raising the legal drinking age because of widespread concern about the harm caused by alcohol consumption among young people.

2013 Australian of the Year, former publisher Ita Buttrose, earlier this month proposed that consideration be given to raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 years as a way to reduce alcohol-related violence and harm.

Ms Buttrose’s suggestion followed a call by some public health experts last year for the drinking age to be raised to 25 years.

While not endorsing any particular age limit, Dr Hambleton said it was important there be a discussion on whether to raise the legal drinking age, and to what level.

The AMA President said international experience showed that raising the legal drinking age to 21 years caused a 15 per cent drop in the incidence of alcohol-related problems, and should be considered.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, around 20 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds admit to binge drinking, and 13 per cent of deaths among those aged between 14 and 17 years are attributable to alcohol.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cited research showing a 16 per cent fall in car crashes involving young people in states that raised the minimum legal drinking age to 21 years in the early 1990s, as well as overall falls in alcohol consumption in those aged 18 to 25 years.

Dr Hambleton said patterns of drinking behaviour developed in the younger years can have life-long effects, leading to adults who are heavier drinkers.

Consideration of raising the legal drinking age has also been fuelled by recent advances in neuroscience showing that the brain does not stop developing until around 25 years, and during this time is particularly vulnerable to the effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

Opponents of any move to raise the drinking age commonly contend that it makes no sense to entrust 18-year-olds with the right to vote and bear arms in defence of the country, but deny them the ability to buy alcohol.

But Dr Hambleton said this was a spurious argument that confused civil rights and responsibilities with public health concerns.

He said the drinking age debate was about the damage caused by alcohol, and how to reduce and prevent it.

Though politicians have so far shown little appetite to tackle the issue, Dr Hambleton said there was widespread concern about drinking among young people.

According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, support for raising the legal drinking age to 21 years has increased from around 41 per cent in 2004 to 50 per cent in 2010.

Director of the McCusker Centre on Action on Alcohol and Young People, Professor Mike Daube, told the West Australian that a debate on raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21 years was “well worth having”, and said a trial of the idea might be “a good option”.

“But in the meantime, we should get on with the measures we know work, and for which there is strong public support, such as protecting young people from inappropriate sales and promotion of alcohol,” Professor Daube said.

The AMA last year issued a report highlighting the use of social media by alcohol companies to market their products to young people, including children.

Meanwhile, a study released by the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine has found there were more than 4600 ‘glassing’ attacks – where a person is assaulted with a glass object such as a bottle or drinking glass – were notified to the Queensland Injury Surveillance Unit between 1999 and 2011, about 9 per cent of all alcohol-related assault injuries.

The study found that in 72 per cent of cases the victims were men, and 36 per cent of them were aged between 18 and 24 years.

Significantly, the research showed that glassing attacks were most commonly carried out at home, and 75 per cent involved the use of a bottle.

The authors, Dr Marguerite Sendall, Anthony Laing and Dr Ruth Barker, said the findings showed that glassing was involved in a relatively small proportion of alcohol-related assaults, but highlighted the public health burden of alcohol-related violence in the home.

Adrian Rollins