Friday, November 20, 2009

Raising The Drinking Age Is Not The Solution

Rising concerns about the prevalence of binge drinking, and the associated incidence of offensive, abusive and violent behavior, have led to renewed debate about the regulation of alcohol in our society. This week, the Police Commissioners of the nation have joined together to launch “Operation Unite” cracking down on bad behavior, while renewing calls for changes to the law. Health authorities are also calling for changes, with one prominent expert, Professor Ian Hickey proposing that the legal drinking age should increase to nineteen.

While there is growing evidence that exposure to alcohol at an early age has significant consequences in terms of brain development, that’s not really an issue by the time a person is eighteen. By that age it would seem that the issue is more related to people’s propensity to engage in risky activity such as drink driving, getting into fights, or simply having physical accidents because they are drunk. As for becoming violent and abusive while under the influence, older people can be just as badly behaved.

It is clear that there is a problem with alcohol related violence, and it should be recognized that there is a range of contributing factors. While age might be one of them, other factors include an apparent increase in belligerence in society in general, a decline in respect for authority, increased opportunity through longer alcohol trading hours, and a decline in personal responsibility. For some people, it seems that everything is someone else’s fault, and instead of minding their own behavior they become arbiters of everybody else’s behavior. If someone is seen to step out of line, they take it upon themselves to punish that person, whether verbally or otherwise. Add alcohol and the confrontation is magnified out of all proportion.

This is supposed to be a free society, and as such we should be able to enjoy our freedom to go where we please, as we please. But that freedom comes with a responsibility to respect each other, and to be courteous and well behaved. That respect comes along with people taking responsibility for their own behavior, choosing not to take offense at others, choosing not to be belligerent, and choosing to drink at safe and responsible levels.

I don’t believe that simply being intoxicated should be illegal. That’s a personal choice, regardless of whether it is good or bad for your health. But being abusive and violent is already illegal, and if getting drunk makes you abusive or violent then you should not be surprised if you wind up in trouble with the law. That’s personal responsibility. There is a good argument for regulating trading hours as a means of discouraging people from becoming a nuisance in the early hours of the morning. There is also a good argument for regulating advertising, and for running education campaigns to change people’s attitudes.

But raising the legal drinking age is not a practical solution. It might reduce the total number of 18 year old drinkers, but those who do still drink would now be doing so illegally and would therefore increase the underage drinking problem. The likelihood of risky behavior among those people would also increase. But most importantly, it removes personal responsibility rather than fostering or encouraging it. It penalizes all 18 year olds who do drink responsibly, and punishes them for the actions of those who are irresponsible. At the age of 18 people can vote, get married, go to war and die for their country, and are expected to be responsible for their own actions in every respect. So if they are expected to be responsible adults, they should be allowed the opportunity to prove it.

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