Friday, November 20, 2009

Will Australia Raise the Drinking Age?

NOTE: This blog is primarily about the United States and is thus written from an American perspective.

Just as more and more Americans want the drinking age to be lowered to 18 over here, there is a growing movement to raise the Australian drinking age (currently 18) to 19 or even 21. The movement, which appears to be spearheaded by Prof. Ian Hickey, cites hackneyed and specious claims about "dain bramage" and alcohol-related violence. Interestingly, drunk driving in Australia is barely even mentioned at all since it is less of a problem over there than here (they are much tougher on DUI than America is), and we can really learn a lot from them. Fortunately, the government is not interested in raising the drinking age, and thus it probably won't happen. Because if it did, it would merely throw gasoline on the fire.

If they want to see what a failure the 21 drinking age is, they should come to America. We tried raising the drinking age to 19 in the early 1980s. Didn't work, so we raised it to 21 in the mid 1980s. Still didn't work. Then we added all these ancillary laws such as dram shop, social host, use and lose, zero tolerance, internal possession. And we toughened up enforcement. Guess what? It still doesn't work.

If Australia is worried about kids under 18 getting wasted, they should enforce the current drinking age better. And the biggest problem group over there, like in America, is people in their twenties. Raising the drinking age targets the wrong group. It would be best for them to raise the alcohol taxes (and make them proportional to alcohol content), shorten pub sales hours (currently 24/7), increase alcohol education, and have zero tolerance for drunk violence. Being drunk is no excuse for misbehavior--millions of people get drunk without ever becoming violent. And forcing drinking underground (where it can't be monitored) is unlikely to reduce violence in any sense. Even if it somehow did for 18-20 year olds, which is unproven, it would merely shift the behavior to 21-24 year olds (which already have a problem).

As for brain damage, there is no conclusive evidence that drinking at 18 is significantly worse than doing so at 21, all else being equal. Maybe for those younger than 18, but that's already illegal. So let's not confuse the issue. Again, lack of enforcement (in Australia) is the problem. And many young people would likely benefit from education about alcohol, which needs to start young since drinking starts young over there (and here as well).

Yes, Virginia, Australia DOES have a drinking problem, and a legendary one at that.  But America does too.  In fact, all predominantly Anglo-Celtic cultures do to some extent.   That's not news.  With few exceptions, the more Anglo-Celtic they are, the worse the drinking culture.  Ditto for pub/street violence--they don't call it a Glasgow kiss for nothing.

How Anglo-Celtic is each country? (Figures are approximate)

US:  30%
Canada:  50%
Australia: 70%
New Zealand: 70%+
UK: 86%
Republic of Ireland: 95%

Due to changing demographics, America is less Anglo-Celtic now than in the past.  This perhaps explains the decline in drinking since 1980 more than anything else, and it is less true for Australia and other such cultures.

The drinking age is irrelevant.  Drunken violence (and other problems) flourishes in cultures that tolerates misbehavior when drunk, such as Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and of course the USA.  Alcohol must never be considered an excuse. 

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