Time for a drinking age

New Zealand does not have a drinking age. People often confuse the purchase age with a drinking age. Many do not realise it is entirely legal for a few dozen 14 year olds to drink vodka at a party.

And it is also not illegal to supply said vodka to 14 year olds. It is only an offence if you purchase the vodka with the intent of supply – something near impossible to prove.

I believe the misguided calls to change the purchase age, party come about because there is no drinking age, and people feel something has to be done about youth drinking, such as reported in today’s Herald:

A King’s College boarder died in his sleep at the weekend after drinking at a friend’s birthday party – the second tragedy to hit the prestigious school in four months.

Students will today wear white – the school’s formal uniform – to mark the death of 16-year-old James Webster, known to mates as “Webby” and described by his headmaster as a “wonderful boy and a great all-rounder”.

“The cause of death has not been determined. What is known is that he died in his sleep during last night. I don’t know the full details yet. I understand that he was at a friend’s birthday party earlier on the Saturday evening.”

An incredibly sad occurrence. However what happened would not have been prevented by making it illegal for a 19 year old to drink wine in a restaurant, or buy a six pack at the supermarket.

The Law Commission has advocated raising the legal drinking age to 20.

The Herald story has it wrong. There is no legal drinking age. There is a purchase age only. A change to the purchase age would have had no impact on what happened.

The Law Commission does recommend a new offence which “may” have helped:

Introducing an offence for any person to supply alcohol to a minor under the age of 18 unless that person is the minor’s parent or guardian or a responsible adult authorised by the parent or guardian and unless the alcohol is supplied
in a responsible manner. This means that any person legally entitled to supply a minor who then fails to supply in a responsible manner, including providing appropriate supervision, also commits an offence.

We don’t know if there were any adults at this party, but even the Law Commission’s proposals won’t cover all situations. If the parents were out, and the kids just raided the drinks cabinet, then what happened would still have broken no law.

Hence if one is to get serious about the problems of youth drinking, I think it is time to have a drinking age, not just a purchase age. It is daft to turn 140,000 18 and 19 year olds into criminals, because of 14 year olds drinking at parties.

So what do I propose. A two step drinking age.

  1. That it shall be illegal for a child under the age of 16 to consume alcohol, and for anyone to supply them with alcohol
  2. That 16 and 17 year olds can drink, but only in the company and direct supervision of their parents

One could argue about whether the age should be 14, 15 or 16. I have gone for 16 because it is consistent with the age young people gain many partial rights – to have sex, to drive etc.

I am open to persuasion it could be lower, but frankly I don’t think 15 year olds should be drinking alcohol. At 15 you should be able to have heaps of fun without the need for alcohol, which as we saw few can handle at that age.

Now some will say a drinking age law is impractical, and interferes with parents rights to introduce alcohol to their kids at an earlier age.

First I would argue that having a law which says under 16 year olds should not drink, will actually help many parents in giving them a reason not to allow under 16s to drink. But if they do allow them to have some wine at dinner, no one is going to call the cops.

A drinking age would allow the Police to break up parties of drinking teens on private property. If you are under 16 and drinking, you are breaking the law. And I think it is important the law places some responsibilities on the youth that breaks the law, not just on any suppliers.

The second part is that 16 and 17 year olds can drink, but only in the company of their parents. This is in fact more restrictive than what the Law Commission proposes. I think the Law Commission proposal will be ineffective as again it only targets supply, not consumption. In the absence of proof over supply, the Police can do nothing.

I think one can debate about whether drinking of 16 and 17 olds should be restricted to in parental company, or other adults. The trouble with allowing it to be with other adults, is the lowest common denominator sets the standards.

What do others think? Should there be a drinking age, not just a purchase age? If so, what should it be, and what exceptions (if any) should there be?

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