FEDERAL politicians lack the courage and leadership to push through legislation raising the legal drinking age to 21 years, say alcohol and health law experts.
Professor Roger Magnusson, professor of health law and governance at the University of Sydney said he was “deeply sceptical” about the courage of federal politicians on this matter.
“I [doubt] whether the federal government is going to assume leadership on this issue — or for that matter any issue relating to preventive health”, Professor Magnusson told MJA InSight.
He was commenting on a Perspective article published today by the MJA, which suggested a four-step strategy to successfully advocate for the introduction of laws in Australia to increase the drinking age to 21 years: seek the support of public health, law enforcement and citizen organisations; focus on evidence of the potential neurological damage in young people; brief politicians appropriately and regularly; and conduct sustained advocacy across all tiers and jurisdictions. (1)
Professor John Toumbourou, chair in health psychology at Deakin University in Geelong, and coauthors wrote that evidence from the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia suggested an that increase in the legal age to purchase alcohol would reduce youth use and harm.
“The approach taken in the US in 1984 could be adopted, in which the US Government required that states pass some form of age-21 legislation before receiving highway funding”, the authors wrote.
Other, “less challenging” options suggested by the authors included: restricting the purchasing age to 19 or 20 years, which would lock our secondary school-age population (as in Canada); restricting the types and amounts of alcohol young people could buy (as in Norway and Sweden); restricting the secondary supply of alcohol to minors (as in the Northern Territory, NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria); and restricting drinking in specific contexts, such as public spaces.
Professor Magnusson told MJA InSight that if the federal government “can’t get its head around the eminently sensible, consciousness-raising step of requiring liquor bottles to bear a label warning pregnant women that drinking could injure their unborn child”, which had been recommended by two major inquiries as mitigation to prevent fetal alcohol syndrome, “it is unlikely to be any help with this proposal”.
Former Liberal parliamentarian Dr Mal Washer, who did not stand for re-election lat year, told MJA InSight lifting the drinking age to 21 years would “make a hell of a difference”.
“If we can get the drinking age back up to 21 we will save a lot of lives and misery and stop a lot of physical and psychological damage in the process”, said Dr Washer, who is also a former chair of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia.
“To achieve that politically is difficult because there are not too many politicians around with the courage to do it.”
He said a bloc of voters aged 18–21 years made such a decision “bloody difficult”.
Dr Washer said it was also important to continue other measures such as restricting alcohol advertising and restricting the hours available for purchasing alcohol, as had happened in NSW with the introduction of new legislation on lockouts, restrictions on liquor trading times, and a statewide 10 pm closing time for the sale of takeaway liquor. (2)
“[Lifting the drinking age] has to be legislated federally and then the states must be persuaded to agree so there’s uniformity across the country”, Dr Washer said.
“It’s probably unlikely that it’s going to happen but from a health point of view it would make a hell of a difference.”
Wyatt Roy, the country’s youngest federal parliamentarian at age 23 years, said lifting the drinking age to 21 years was akin to “prohibition”.
“It’s one thing for the drinking age to be at 21 if it’s never been lower than that, and a whole other thing to take away something from a group of people”, Mr Roy told MJA InSight.
“We have a binge-drinking culture and I support initiatives working to change that culture, like ‘Hello Sunday Morning’. (3)
“In Germany for example, you can drink beer from [age] 16 and then spirits from 18 and that helps create a better drinking culture that is much more responsible.”
Jessica Dean, president of the Australian Medical Students’ Association (AMSA) said the association was not in favour of “punitive” measures that effectively locked 18–21-year-olds out of the debate. AMSA has just released its Alcohol misuse and harms policy. (4)
Ms Dean told MJA InSight raising the drinking age was disempowering. “We favour utilising education and proactive cultural shifts.”