Thursday, August 30, 2012


Today New Zealand’s Parliament voted to keep the drinking age at 18. On balance, I think this is a sensible move.

The options before Parliament were to keep the age at 18, raise it to 20, or have a split age: 18 for bars, but 20 for buying alcohol in supermarkets and bottle stores. That last one was a truly daft idea.

The well-meaning people who proposed the split age felt that allowing 18 year olds to drink alcohol only in a licensed establishment (like a bar) would be “safer” because they’d be “supervised” and young people wouldn’t be able to get too drunk, or so the reasoning went. The backers also thought that preventing young people from buying alcohol at supermarkets and bottle shops would prevent them from “pre-loading”, that is, getting drunk on cheaper drinks before they go to bars.

There are other, less drastic means already available: Cracking down on the number and location of off-license businesses, prosecuting people who drink in liquor ban areas and ensuring that drunk people don’t get into bars, all of which current law can deal with.

One problem with the split age is that it would transfer all alcohol profits to bars, many of which are associated with big companies, even alcohol conglomerates. Worse, it would also discourage young people from staying home, making drink driving more likely.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with the split age or raising the drinking age to 20 is that they both unreasonably singled-out young people—18 and 19 year olds—to be scapegoats for New Zealand’s binge drinking culture (a problem shared with other countries, by the way). There are a lot more folks over 20 than under, yet no one is proposing to make things tougher for older New Zealanders to get a drink—or drunk.

There have been other daft proposals that may or may not make it through Parliament, but my bottom line is simple and, perhaps surprisingly, conservative: Using laws to change people’s behaviour ought to be the last resort, when everything else has failed. We’re nowhere near that point.

We’ve already seen a decline in drink driving thanks to targeted advertising, there’s no reason to think we can’t do the same for binge drinking in general, but we’ve never made a serious effort. Similarly, as with sex education, the goal should be risk reduction and harm minimisation, not prohibition: Telling people that they can’t drink or have sex won’t stop them from doing either. Instead, the better approach is teaching them to be safe, to protect themselves and their friends and to minimise harm. We can never prevent harm, anyway, no matter how many laws we pass. And, we already have boundaries in law—we should enforce those we already have before adding more.

So, I think Parliament acted sensibly. Let’s take reasonable approaches to reducing risk and minimising harm before battering people with new laws to criminalise behaviour they will engage in whether we approve or not.


Roger Owen Green said...

Raising the age in the US to 21 has brought no good outcome.

Arthur Schenck said...

Exactly. Criminalising behaviour, especially for one group (like young people) while allowing others (like older people) to do the same thing isn't a recipe for good outcomes.