Guest Post: Shaun Wallis on the Alcohol Purchase Age

August 30th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Shaun Wallis is the NZ Vice-President of the Young Nationals.

Shaun is currently working towards an LLB/BCA (Accounting and Taxation) double degree at Victoria University.

It’s who you are, not how old you are that determines drinking habits. There’s no denying we have a binge drinking culture, and there’s no denying that nearly all of us, young and old have been affected by it in ways large or small.

However, a large number of 18 and 19 year olds that drink responsibly will be scapegoated by the changes to the purchase age. Yet, the New Zealand-wide culture of alcohol abuse will remain…

If we are to tackle binge drinking as a country, we need to change our drinking habits not our drinking age. We know most problem drinkers are over 20. Where is the debate on the harm of drink driving and domestic violence to make New Zealand safer for young and old?

China, the UK, France, Spain and Ireland all have a purchase age of 18. The Germans allow 16 year olds to buy beer and wine, and 18 year olds to buy spirits. Italy has an age of 16 and Denmark allows 16 year olds to buy low-percentage alcohol from stores but not bars, restaurants and discos – and in the sweetest of ironies, the latter reserved for 18 year olds. Yet nearly all of these countries do not experience the abusive culture around alcohol. Fiddling with the purchase age is a red herring, which is why some of our politicians have got it so wrong on alcohol reform.

Better still the drinking habits of young people have improved since we lowered the age from 20 to 18. In 2006, ALAC research found 53% of 12 to 17 year olds were drinkers, but by 2010, only 32% were drinkers. That is a relative 40% drop in the prevalence rate over five years. The age at which young people start drinking has been increasing. In 2006, 35% of young drinkers started before they turned 14. In 2010, it was just 21%. Note this is the proportion of youth drinkers. Of total youth, only 11% start drinking before their 15th birthday. Thus there are positive signs already coming through with our youngest New Zealanders.

So lets focus on the changes in the Alcohol Reform Bill that do matter: It will empower agencies to use measures to regulate licencing responsibly – such as requiring bottle stores near schools to close when school gets out as well as targeting irresponsible supply to minors, requiring parental consent for supply of alcohol to minors based on reasonable grounds. Additionally, it cracks down on those who actively supply to minors, removing their licence/ certificate revoked if prosecuted. We have strong, sensible and practical measures that will address binge drinking across the board, not the age of a few binge drinkers alone.

The split age proposal will push 18 and 19 year olds into more dangerous environments when enjoying a few drinks with friends. No doubt about it – more serious harm and other associated harm occurs in and around licensed premises. Drink spiking, serious assault and sexual harm is more likely to occur in town than in the home of younger drinkers. 1 in 4 people arrested for disorderly behaviour as a result of excess drinking claim that their last drink was on a licensed premises. Even the NZ Law Commission is “not convinced the evidence supports this assumption“.

Why are we telling bar owners and staff to be babysitters of 18/19-year-old drinkers? The State needs to promote the virtues of personal responsibility and self-awareness of alcohol consumption on young drinkers to reduce alcohol abuse. Young drinkers need to understand the risks and manage their own consumption. Yet by limiting the place of alcohol consumption to bars and clubs for 18-19 year olds, the message to control your own drinking is diminished and babysitter functions are imposed on pubs and clubs.

Young rural New Zealanders will be unfairly affected by changing the purchase age. In provincial New Zealand, the days of the local pub have gone, with significantly fewer on-licensed premises. Rather than enjoy a few drinks at home with mates, 18 and 19 year old Kiwis in rural areas will be forced to jump in a car and drive a fair distance to the nearest licensed premises. Given nearly all New Zealanders overwhelmingly see drink driving as extremely dangerous and not acceptable, why would we want to contradict progress?

Lastly, there is a strong rights argument for the case to keep the purchase age at 18. At its most simplest form, if we deem 18 and 19 year olds old enough to move away from home, take a student loan out or start to learn a trade, manage their power, rent, internet, groceries and so on, surely they’re old enough to manage their own drinking habits? We need to promote more personal responsibility, and hence a targeted culture change campaign aimed at energizing individuals to take personal responsibility for their alcohol habits would be much, much more effective at delivering real change than just tinkering with the purchase age.

In sum, changing the purchase age will not have the desired effect of many in favour that seek to achieve. It won’t affect the culture. It won’t change behaviour. It’ll unnecessarily ping the vast majority of sensible 18 and 19 year olds, and I believe Parliament will be called upon again to vote on the purchase age in the future. Let’s not waste our opportunity to break this cycle by focusing on the changes we need to make and stop flogging the age. We can draw circles around the age or we can start making effective changes through good laws and quality education that changes habits and turns our drinking culture around.

The vote/s will be at 5.30 pm today. I really do hope they vote to keep it 18, as we can then move on from this issue, and focus on the other issues around alcohol. If it is increased in part or full to 20, it will remain a contentious issue as young New Zealanders will never accept that they can be working, married, raising kids at 19 but not able to buy wine at the supermarket.

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