The Rudd Government is moving to raise the legal drinking age to 21 in an effort to curb binge drinking among Australia’s youth.
Researchers, close to the issue such as Professor Jon Currie, director of addiction medicine and mental health at St Vincent’s Hospital in Victoria supports the concept of raising the drinking age, as does Professor John Toumbourou of Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, who says that “lifting the drinking age has had a proven track record of reducing alcohol-related harm to the brain, which is still forming into the early 20s.”
“In countries or states where it has been introduced there has been around a 15% reduction in deaths and harm related to alcohol. Where the reverse occurred — such as in Australia where some states dropped the drinking age from 21 to 18 in the 1970s — there had been an equivalent rise in deaths and harm,” Professor Toumbourou said.
Drug Free Australia says there is no one ‘silver bullet’ and needs to be a combination of effort and a range of strategies – nothing should be omitted when looking at effective change. Health, education and legal sectors need to combine their effort, while government strategies should include long term programs of community awareness and education, combined with consistent state laws.
“This is a solution that has worked in the United States’, said Wendy Herbert, Drug Free Australia’s spokesperson on alcohol issues.
In 1974 the legal age to consume alcohol was dropped to 18 in Australia. Since then we have seen a generation of young Australians who have grown up thinking that it’s safe to drink to excess – that it’s a ‘right of passage’.
The research from the US (from its National Traffic Safety Administration) has revealed that by raising the drinking age back up to 21, 16,409 lives have been saved from road death in a sixteen year period. The estimates from the study show that the raised minimum age drinking laws in all states have reduced traffic fatalities in 18 to 20 year olds by 13%.
“Apart from reducing road carnage, raising the drinking age is one of the key issues to reducing overall alcohol and drug abuse. Alcohol is the main gateway drug. When people delay the start of alcohol use to 21 they are less likely to develop addiction to alcohol or any other drug,” Ms Herbert said.
Delaying the onset of alcohol use also falls in line with the latest research on the development of the adolescent brain. The thirteen year long US National Institute of Mental Health study confirms research that shows a delay of drinking (and its likely gateway into other drugs) till 21 reduces the harm from these substances. This 13 year longitudinal study using MRI has produced no other counter research.
Ms Herbert explained, “By allowing a substance-free maturity of the prefrontal cortex and the development of a fully functioning brain, capable of understanding consequences of decisions, the risk of dependence and addiction to drugs and alcohol for those who delay drug and alcohol experimentation till 21 is considerably minimised”
This is backed by a recent international comparison of underage alcohol use, conducted by Australian and US researchers and involving 6000 children, which has found rates of binge drinking are up to three times higher among Australian Year 9 students compared with equivalent American teenagers. The study’s authors, including Professor Toumbourou, said the findings of higher binge drinking rates in Australia showed the current approaches are not working. The rising rates of Australian teenagers being admitted to hospital for alcohol-related injuries made the findings of serious concern.