Last week, the Prime Minister intimated on national television that he would consider raising the legal drinking age to 21 if there was evidence to show this would improve road safety.
Dr Alex Wodak then wrote in Crikey that raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 would be “a poorly targeted prohibition with the likelihood of significant levels of non-compliance and consequently (possibly severe) unintended negative consequences”. There would also be political and ethical problems, he added.
Croakey put the question out to other contributors, and plans to publish a series of responses. First off the blocks is Geoff Munro, National Policy Manager of the Australian Drug Foundation. He writes:
“Kevin Rudd’s notion of advancing the age at which people can purchase alcohol shows he is still considering population-based approaches – the most effective way to reduce problems. Age of purchase does matter – New Zealand dropped the age from 20 to 18 in 1999 and then tried to reverse it when underage drinking increased.
Alex Wodak suggested we can’t raise the age when people enlist at 18, but if that really was the stumbling block it would be solved easily, for the government could exempt the armed forces and allow 18yo servicemen and women an ‘early drink.’ It might do something for recruitment.
However, Wodak is right that the politics is awkward: the alcohol industry –producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and the hospitality and entertainment industries, would run the mother of all crusades. A senior journalist told me the jihad against the alcopops tax was unprecedented in his experience – he had never seen lobbying to match the spirits industry – and that concerned one beverage only, not a whole hard-drinking cohort.
But there is another option. Kevin Rudd could restrict access to alcohol for people below eighteen years. The evidence is compelling and the industry could not object. The latest guidelines issued by the National Health & Medical Research Council warn that drinking under 18 years is fraught as it can compromise the physical and cognitive development of immature bodies.
Three states – NSW, Queensland and Tasmania – now require a person who supplies alcohol to a minor on private premises to gain the prior approval of a parent or equivalent. Most parents support this as they would prefer to control their child’s access to alcohol. There seems no good reason to oppose it: parents retain the right to give their children alcohol, and to permit their children to drink under supervision elsewhere, but otherwise underage children lose access to alcohol.
Queensland and Tasmania adopted their respective secondary supply laws in 2009 and added conditions that protect children from being supplied with ‘reckless’ or unreasonable amounts of alcohol, and from being allowed to drink while unsupervised.
Tasmania’s Act followed an incident where young boys on a fishing trip were given a slab of vodka alcopops to drink unsupervised, and one was burned seriously when he fell into the campfire while intoxicated. Under the prevailing law no offence was committed.
While adolescents in half the country are protected against such negligence, in the rest any person can give any child of any age any amount of alcohol in a private setting, without even the knowledge of the child’s parent.
Last November the Australian Drug Foundation called for a national ban on the provision of alcohol to minors without parental consent. Not one voice was raised against it as the ADF received virtual total support from the public and commentators alike.
‘Secondary supply’ has been on the COAG agenda for two years. It’s time for Kevin Rudd to put it on the public agenda. He will only get support.”