Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If it Ducks Like a Quack

After celebrating our recent victory in New Zealand, we almost forgot about the other country down under.  While there does not appear to be any real serious chance of Australia's drinking age being raised, the head of the Australian Medical Association just revealed himself as the king of quacks by calling for his country's drinking age to be raised to not 21, but 25.   Dr. Steve Hambleton claims that the brain continues to develop until age 25, and that exposure to alcohol before that age can change a person's addictive potential.   He also claims that raising the age limit would reduce drunken violence, which is apparently a serious problem in Australia.

But once again, theory collides pretty hard with reality.  First of all, the most recent studies have found that brain development (especially the prefrontal cortex) actually continues well into the 30s and 40s, and possibly even beyond that.  Secondly, as for the risk of alcoholism, the best study we have found that addresses the issue, Agrawal et al. (2009), finds that drinking before 18 (and especially before 15) does appear to increase the risk of later alcoholism, but there was no significant difference between those who began drinking at 18, 19, 20, 21, or even 23+.  So 21 or even 25 is completely arbitrary.  Thirdly, some states of India have a drinking age of 25 while others are 18 or 21 and a few are "dry" for all ages, and there is currently no evidence that the parts with higher drinking ages have fewer drinking problems than the parts with lower drinking ages.  In fact, the parts with an age limit of 25 find it VERY hard to enforce, with up to 90% of bar patrons on a busy night being "underage."  How Australia could possibly pull it off remains an unanswered question.  Finally, setting the drinking age seven years higher than the age of majority is serious violation of the civil rights of 18-24 year old legal adults, unless of course Dr. Hambleton is willing to raise the age of majority for everything else (good and bad) to 25 as well.  Which we think is unlikely, by the way.

If Australia really wants to solve its legendary drinking problem, which is almost as bad as New Zealand's and affects ALL ages, they would be better off keeping the drinking age at 18 and enforcing it better while raising the alcohol taxes, setting a price floor, reducing the number and density of alcohol outlets, improving alcohol education and treatment, and most importantly, cracking down VERY hard on DUI and especially drunk violence and disorderly conduct.  Australia has seen great success in reducing drunk driving fatalities, but drunk violence and extreme binge drinking remain serious problems.  It is mainly a cultural problem, which can really only be solved by changing the culture.  And raising the drinking age will NOT accomplish any beneficial culture change--in fact it will most likely make it worse, if the USA is any indication.