Issue 16 / 12 May 2014

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.”


1. MJA 2014; Online 12 May
2. NSW Government 2014; New alcohol laws in force
3. Hello Sunday Morning
4. AMSA 2014; Alcohol misuse and harms policy


Should the legal drinking age be lifted to 21 years to reduce harm to youth from alcohol?
  • Yes - evidence is in (63%, 66 Votes)
  • No - 18-year-olds are adults (24%, 25 Votes)
  • Maybe - other options preferred (13%, 14 Votes)

Total Voters: 105

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6 thoughts on ““Courage” to lift drink age

  1. khushmer singh says:

    There are already too many laws and restrictions in place and monitoring /compliance has been an issue.

    One only has to visit hospitals with “No smoking” signs only to find people smoking  in front of these and  no action.

    Education and greater discpline  from parents and family may achieve better results.

  2. Anthony Zehetner says:

    It would be difficult to police particulary when studies show that often a teenager’s first drink is supplied (sometimes inadvertently) by their parents in Australia. Teens often have a sense of ‘entitlement’  to alcohol use here, at least from age 18 and not 21 as we celebrate many milestones with alcohol and there is sports sponsorship from brewers. A delayed drinking age (from 18 to 21) would reduce the risk of adolescent addiction four-fold and reduce the cocktail (no pun intended) of onset of driving and drinking age.

  3. Epworth Hospital says:

    So we now plan to turn into criminals a cohort of 18-21 year olds who would not currently be criminals, for the offence of merely drinking, even if this has not produced a victim other than themselves.

    Educate, don’t legislate, and punish alcohol-lubricated transgressions appropriately instead of allowing alcohol as a mitigating factor.

    if they are old enough to vote and old enough to be killed in a war for our defence then they are old enough to drink alcohol, and to take responsibility for their own actions.

  4. Kevin Marks says:

    Really – ridiculous. Too many laws now. Education is the only answer. Really just a bunch of wowsers.

    At 18 young adults (that is what they are and they have their own responsibilities) are expected to go to university, college, etc as well as drive.  Their exposure to alcohol escalates after they turn 18 and it would be impossible to police.

    People must take responsibility for their own health, health providors must stop this attitude of legislating every time there is a problem.

  5. Samantha Menezes says:

    It’s not a question of “nannyism”. Our country has a significant problem with alcohol. Our young people are our future. We have people in their 50’s and 60’s being diagnosed with alcohol related dementia and no where for them to receive the care they need. These people lose their short term memories- try and exist without that. It is impossible to cope day to day- let alone how the family deals with diagnosis like this. 

    Alcohol related illness and problems is costing our country a fortune. Its a drug, a  cancer causing toxin and if consumed young enough can hard wire a persons brain to want to keep drinking. I am all for self responsibility also, however this is one of the most addictive and damaging drugs in the world. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it good for us. 

    Our politicians need to pull their heads in, cut ties with the big alcohol industry and legislate to save our future generations. Legislation and education can be complimentary. The drinking culture in Australia needs to be reigned back in. Parents also need to sort themselves out and not be  the best friend and alcohol supplier to their kids. 

    It’s time to look at the evidence and act on it. 

  6. Elizabeth EB says:

    America sends their young people to war at 18, but they can’t have a beer until they’re 21, it makes no sense to me. It should not be about the law, but educating our young people to drink responsibly. The current trend to binge drink is a major issue, but laws won’t change that behaviour.

    My sister studied in the States and these laws just send everything underground, those under 21 can still get their hands on alcohol if they’re motivated to do so and that would definitely include those who currently abuse their health with excessive amounts of alcohol. (and their safety and lives)

    Did Prohibition get rid of alcohol? Don’t think so, but it was great business for criminal groups. The people most likely to stop drinking because of these laws are those who don’t overdo it in the first place, that’s not the group we should be targeting.

    Binge drinking is about more than alcohol, it’s destructive risk-taking behaviour. (that takes many lives)

    The Q is: Why do young people (and others) feel compelled to abuse their health in this way?




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