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18 or 20? The drinking age problem

At eighteen years old, you can get married without your parents’ permission. You can get a loan, buy a packet of cigarettes, join the army or hire porn. You can travel the world, have children and buy a house. But you can’t have a glass of champagne at your wedding or christen your new house with a well deserved beer. Fair?

In December 1999 New Zealand lowered the legal drinking age from 20 years to 18. The reasons cited above were major arguments in bringing about the law change. 18-year-olds around the country celebrated – no more fake IDs or getting older friends to buy their alcohol for them. It seemed to be a logical alteration to the law; surely if you are old enough to marry, you are old enough to buy a bottle of wine?

Yet seven years on, politicians are debating the drinking age again, with the majority of MPs favouring a rise in the drinking age back to 20. What happened? Some politicians claim that the lowered drinking age has encouraged even younger youths (13, 14, 15 year olds) to consume alcohol. One argument is that a fourteen year old is far more likely to know an eighteen year old who can buy them alcohol, compared to when the drinking age was twenty. Is the argument valid? Possibly. But the real problem, I believe, is that our culture is at fault for underage drinking, not the legal drinking age.

The Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC) seems to agree with me. Their latest advertising campaign is based around the slogan “It’s not the drinking. It’s how we’re drinking”. Drinking is a large part of NZ culture. As a teenager, I went to my first alcohol inclusive party at the age of thirteen (not that my parents knew at the time!) By sixteen years old I drank regularly at parties every weekend. By University age, to fit into the lifestyle, I was verging on alcoholic. For the first semester of my University degree I was only 17 years old. I entered pubs using a fake ID and relied on friends to buy me alcohol at the supermarket. It’s a crazy thought really – I already had 1/6 of my university degree (along with a $6000 loan) and I wasn’t allowed to legally drink. Imagine if the drinking age was 20 – I would have almost finished my degree before I could legally enter the student pub!

How do other countries cope with the drinking age? Many parts of Europe are quite liberal with the drinking age. While most countries do have a legal age, the drinking culture is quite different from here in NZ. Children are raised having a taste of Mum’s wine, or even sipping the wine at Church. Indeed, religion can play a large role in society’s drinking; in many cultures where religion has a strong influence, drinking is less of a problem. As an example, most Asian countries do not have an issue with young people and alcohol. Religion is prominent throughout Asia, and stricter rules impact the way teenagers view alcohol.

New Zealand has a large focus on binge drinking. Most teenagers would consume large amounts of alcohol during the weekend, and then remain sober during the week. Again this comes back to the catchphrase, it’s not what we’re drinking, it’s how we’re drinking. Binge drinking can result in loss of control, judgment and even consciousness. If we could tackle the problem of binge drinking and make our drinking more regulated, I believe a lot of the problem would be solved.

So how do we change our culture? That’s the million dollar question. Firstly, I think we need to be educated about alcohol and its effects. Teenage rebellion is commonplace – if teens think they’re not allowed something, it makes them want it even more. If we allowed teenagers to experiment with alcohol in safe settings rather than booze-fuelled parties, hopefully a more mature attitude towards alcohol would exist. Teens need to be educated about the long and short term effects alcohol has on them.

Secondly, we need to lead by example. Alcohol plays a very prominent role in NZ culture, and unfortunately this means that adults are susceptible to over-indulging. The old saying “monkey see, monkey do” comes into play here – if we can better control our adult alcohol intake, then it will be easier to control youth drinking.

Thirdly, we need to look at how other cultures handle drinking, and learn from both their successes and failures. We are a small, but highly educated country, and it would be a shame not to look abroad for advice. Alcohol abuse is not a problem in some other countries, so let’s look at how these countries are leading by example.

For further info about drinking culture and liquor laws in NZ, check out the following websites:

By pink 10-Jul-2006
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