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The Minimum Drinking Age

  • For public health and safety reasons, the Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit recommends that the legal minimum age for purchasing alcohol be 20. High risk behaviour and patterns of drinking to excess are more common among young people, particularly among young males, than among older groups (Wyllie, Millard & Zhang 1996). They are also more likely to experience alcohol related harm than an older person drinking the same amount (Casswell 1993). Seventeen percent of assaults in hotels resulting in hospitalisation were found to involve people less than 20 years of age (Langley et al. 1996).
  • Research in the United states has shown a significant relationship between the early drinking patterns of individuals and their age cohort and later heavy drinking and alcohol related problems (Fillmore et al. 1991; Chou & Pickering 1992). A longitudinal study of New Zealand adolescents has shown that access to alcohol at ages 15 and 18 was a significant predictor of amounts drunk and adverse consequences at later ages. Access to alcohol via licensed premises was more significant than peer or parental influences (Casswell & Zhang, submitted for publication).
  • A considerable body of research on drinking age changes in Australia and the United States shows that lowering the drinking age to 18 was associated with increased drink drive fatalities and injuries. When the United States returned to a minimum age of 21, alcohol related fatalities and crashes were reduced, particularly among new drivers, and lower alcohol consumption levels by teenagers have persisted in their early 20s (Wagenaar 1993; Wagenaar & Wolfson 1994; Chaloupka 1993; O'Malley & Wagenaar 1991; Smith & Burvill 1986).

An enforceable minimum age

  • The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit strongly supports a clear, easy-to- enforce minimum age for purchasing alcohol. The amendments related to both legal drinking age and clarification of licence categories are aimed at enabling licensees, police officers and inspectors to know exactly who may be present on restricted premises or drinking with a meal on restaurant premises. Young-looking people will be asked to show an official age identification card.
  • Improved enforcement of both on- and off-licensed premises can reduce the availability of alcohol to at risk teenage drinkers. Police and inspectors interviewed in 15 localities reported under-enforcement of underage drinking in on-licensed premises at present because of the complexity of provisions and exemptions in the Act. In their view, enforcement would be improved if the age provisions were simplified, and conviction rates could be increased by allowing police to seize alcohol and alcohol containers as evidence and by court recognition of averment by police witnesses (see S.6 re intoxication and S.9 re Role of Police).
  • A provision similar to the 'three strikes and you're out' sanctions in both California and Tasmania would strengthen enforcement by linking penal provisions and licence renewal.
  • Very little enforcement attention is being given to off-licensed premises (Hill & Stewart 1996), although these are an important source of alcohol for drinkers in their mid-teens. The 1995 national survey showed wineshops, supermarkets and other off-licences to be an important source of alcohol for 14 to 17 year olds, as well as 18 to 19 year olds. Both groups met with little refusal, particularly in supermarkets (Wyllie, Millard & Zhang 1996). Strengthening penal provisions related to persons purchasing liquor on behalf of minors is also supported (Other Technical Issues, item 3).

Age as the sole criterion

  • Much of the confusion in enforcing the Act derives from the designation of premises as either restricted, supervised or undesignated, with different requirements as to age, meals, and presence of relatives. The Alcohol & PublicHealth Unit recommends a single minimum age for the sale, supply and consumption of liquor in licensed premises,with a restriction on entry into premises whose primary focus is alcohol.
  • Taking age as the sole criteria moves away from the confusing and more difficult-to-enforce concept of permitting underage drinking in the presence of a parent, guardian or spouse on premises under the management of a licensee. Similar ‘supervision’ exceptions are included in some licensing systems overseas, but not others. In Australia, where the minimum drinking age is 18, there are similar exemptions, with variations between state. The loosest situation is in New South Wales, where a spouse is defined as an adult person with whom one is living in a domestic relationship. Norway makes no exemptions for supervision by parent or guardian and Queensland dispensed with its exemption in relation to supervision by an adult spouse, deciding that this was not relevant to alcohol consumption on licensed premises.
  • The Alcohol & Public Health Research Unit supports a requirement for proof of age by young people who choose to enter age restricted licensed premises or choose to buy alcohol with a meal on unrestricted licensed restaurant premises.
  • To ensure effectiveness this will need to be a form of identification issued by a government department, whose regulations or practices will establish a formal process for presentation of a birth certificate, notarisation of photo etc.,and a check against a data base. The form of identification must be such that forgery is extremely difficult. The framework for such a system already exists with drivers' licences, but the department would need additional resourcing to provide ID cards for non-drivers. Effective enforcement by police of both licensees and patrons will need to involve the right to search for and take possession of IDs where an offence was reasonably suspected.
  • Such forms of age identification for young drinkers are routine on licensed premises in the United States and Canada. This appears to be a reasonably successful and accepted practice, without any expectation of ID cards being required for the whole population.

In Britain and Northern Ireland the liquor industry has produced its own tamper-resistant ID cards. However, these have not met a high demand since there is little enforcement of age restrictions. United States experiences suggest that effective age restrictions depend on a well designed, tightly administered ID card, backed by police operations to enforce compliance by both on and off licences premises (Wagenaar et al. 1993; Wagenaar & Wolfson 1994; Wolfson et al. 1996; Prevention File 1995).

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October 1997