We have a drinking problem in this country, that much is obvious. I do not intend to revisit the numerous surveys and studies that have established this conclusion. Instead I want to discuss where we need to go from here.
In recent days the results from the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey report have become a topic of discussion. Amongst other findings, the report found that support for increasing the minimum drinking age, as a means to combating people's problems with alcohol had risen from approximately 40% in 2004 to 50% of respondents in 2010.
This finding is encouraging, it demonstrates that as a community we are willing to seriously consider options to combat the growth of alcohol related problems. However, despite indications otherwise, this finding does not demonstrate that increasing the age at which people at consume alcohol in public places will prove effective. It is tempting to conclude that binge drinking, and alcohol related problems have only become a problem as the age at which the consumption of alcohol was steadily decreased from 21 to 18 years of age during the 1970s. However it is important to keep in mind, according to statistics compiled by the Australia Bureau of Statistics:
Between the early 1960s and mid 1970s apparent per capita consumption increased steadily, from an average 9.3 litres of pure alcohol per person to a peak of 13.1 litres of pure alcohol per person in 1974-75. Apparent per capita consumption remained relatively steady for the next 5-10 years, then declined over the following decade, reaching 9.8 litres per person in 1995-96.
(ABS 4307.0.55.002, Apparent Consumption of Alcohol: Extended Time Series, 1944-5 to 2008-9)
In 2010-11 the figure sits at approximately 10 litres per person.
Whilst it is clear that there is a correlation between the increase of alcohol consumption and the decrease in the minimum drinking age, and perhaps even a causation, it can not be said that the change in the law lead to a long term change in consumption levels. As we can see, the amount of alcohol consumed per person has returned to a relatively similar level today.
Instead what we are seeing today is an increase in the number of people partaking in dangerous levels of drinking, i.e. binge drinking or drinking to get drunk. Increasing the age at which people can consume alcohol in public places may have a small affect upon the current trend to partake in dangerous drinking behaviours. However, what has to be kept in mind, is that drinking is not confined to public venues. It is not uncommon to see people drinking before going out, to unfortunately, drink some more. So whilst increasing the minimum drinking age might limit the opportunity for people, especially young people, to get drunk in public, it does nothing to stem dangerous behaviours occurring elsewhere.
A response might be to extend the reach of the law. At present restrictions placed upon people under the age of 18 years of age drinking alcohol have no effect upon them whilst in their family home. However the resources required in policing such a measure surely render it impractical.
The effectiveness of increasing the drinking age from 18 to 21 years unfortunately misses another vital point, that is the role of adults. Young people do not simply reach 18 years of age and suddenly decide that they are going to drink alcohol to excess. More likely, they have consumed alcohol in the family home or at a party (without the supervision or permission of adults). Further they have most likely been at family events where they have seen adults consuming alcohol. If the statistics are right, it is likely they have seen adults partaking in dangerous drinking behaviours at these events.
Unfortunately it is not just young people who have latched onto the binge drinking culture, most probably, they learnt from those around them, their parents, family and friends. Binge drinking is not a young person's problem. It is a problem that permeates all age groups, and sexes in our community. It is a cultural problem that all age groups must help to overcome.
This much can also be seen in the drinking cultures of Europe. The laws concerning the age at which a person can consume alcohol in public range from 14 (Germany), 16 (Italy) and 20 years of age (Iceland). Yet these countries do not experience the same levels of alcohol related problems as can be found in Australia. This leaves us with culture. Unfortunately it when it comes to culture, there is no magic cure for change.
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