The split purchase age

The Herald reports:

MPs given a conscience vote on the legal drinking age would probably allow 18-year-olds into bars and pubs but return the off-licence purchase age to 20. …

Asked how they intended to vote on the alcohol purchase age, many MPs, including Mr Key and Opposition leader Phil Goff, said they were likely to vote for a split age which would keep the purchase age on licensed premises at 18, but raise the purchase age at liquor stores, supermarkets and other off-licence premises to 20.

This would be a better outcome that having the age for both at 20, but it would still be a flawed decision which will be not just ineffective, but possibly counter-productive.

Mr Goff also said it would be up to each Labour MP how they voted on the drinking age, but he supported a split age because it was better to have 18 and 19-year-olds drinking under supervision rather “than out of the back of a car in a reserve somewhere”.

The reality is this is not the choice for 18 and 19 year olds. The ones who drink in the backs of cars are the 16 and 17 year old, or even younger.

What 18 and 19 year olds do is they have a few drinks at home, before heading into the bars around midnight. And it is naive to think that they will not access alcohol to drink at home, and only drink when out in bars.

Even worse, a split age may actually work against engendering the culture change we need to change drinking habits amongst under 18 year olds.

Culture change is difficult, but not impossible. An example of a successful one is around youth drink driving. 30 years ago people would boast about driving smashed. Today the response from most young people to a revelation that a mate drove while pissed is to abuse the crap out of them for being a moron and risking lives. Drink driving has largely become uncool.

Now what we need is to make it uncool to supply alcohol to minors uner the age of 18. At present this is not even illegal. We need to both make it an offence to supply alcohol to under 18 year olds, but also make it very uncool to do so – to point out all the deaths that have occured from 16 and 17 year olds etc who drink themselves to death.

But this is where the problem occurs if you have a split age, with an age of 20 needed for off licenses. You see while I think you can get a culture change to make it uncool to supply alcohol to 16 and 17 year olds, there is no way NZers will buy into a culture of not allowing a 19 year old to buy a bottle of wine or a sixpack of beer. There is no way 20 year olds will feel some sort of moral obligation not to pass on alcohol to a 19 year old who has been voting, working etc for a couple of years.

However if you keep the age at 18, I think one can work towards a culture where 18, 19 and 20 year olds can be taught it is wrong to allow 16 and 17 year olds alcohol, and start to make it “uncool” as has happened with drink driving.

So I would urge those MPs who think 18/20 split age is a smart compromise, to consider what messages it will be sending out to young people.

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