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Strong evidence for raising drinking age but little support

A group of Australian doctors and academics has called on the Commonwealth government today to raise the legal drinking age to 21, in order to reduce the harms associated with early heavy drinking. According…

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heavy drinking. Image from

A group of Australian doctors and academics has called on the Commonwealth government today to raise the legal drinking age to 21, in order to reduce the harms associated with early heavy drinking.

According to one recent report, almost two-thirds (63%) of drinkers aged 18 to 24 years say they drink alcohol to get drunk and one third (35%) report not being able to stop drinking once they’d started. Worryingly, more than a third (39%) are unable to remember what happened the night of a big drinking session.

We know that regulating access to alcohol significantly influences the risk of harm – recognition of this has underpinned Australia’s liquor licensing laws that prevent under 18s from purchasing or consuming alcohol on licensed premises.

But while there is strong evidence to support an increase in the legal drinking age, this is yet to translate to community support for such a change.

Harms of alcohol on young people

Young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heavy drinking. The harms include an increased risk of traffic accidents, injuries from violence and, some studies suggest, suicide. In Australia we have seen increasing rates of alcohol use cause hospitalisations among young Australians.

Evidence has also emerged over the past couple of years about the impact of alcohol on the developing brains of young people. These studies identify physical changes in the brain and evidence of impaired problem solving and other cognitive functioning. This, in turn, might influence the ability of the child to reach their full educational capacity.

A natural experiment

Quality research from the United States, New Zealand and Australia provides compelling evidence that if we increase the legal purchase age for alcohol, we will reduce alcohol-related problems among young people.

This evidence arises from changes in the 1970s and 1980s when many US and Australian states reduced their minimum legal purchase age to 18. More recently, New Zealand also reduced the minimum age from 20 to 18.

Image from

The Australian and the more recent New Zealand evidence give a consistent picture, even though the changes occurred two decades apart. Lowering the minimum legal purchase age was associated with an increase in road traffic accidents, and other harms, among young people.

Many US states reduced their drinking age from 21 to 18. However, concern about alcohol-related harm, especially on the roads, led to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act 1984, which tied federal funding for roads to the establishment of a minimum legal drinking age of 21.

A unique natural experiment allowed analysis of what happens when the drinking age goes down and then back up: alcohol consumption and traffic accidents among young people increased with more liberal legislation that lowered the drinking age, and then decreased with the more restrictive legislation that moved the legal drinking age back to 21. When the legal drinking age increased, the age of underage drinkers also increased.

The adverse effects of what young people do today can persist until later in life. Changes in the minimum legal purchase age in the US also allowed careful analysis of two large samples.

This analysis found that exposure to more a permissive legal purchase age – that is 18 versus 21 – was associated with an increased risk of “binge drinking” among young people, and this risk persisted into later adulthood.

Alcohol can impair the developing brain. Matt Simpson

The legal age debate

Combined, the evidence supports the calls to reconsider young people’s access to alcohol by increasing the minimum legal purchase age. But this is a contentious proposition. The arguments for maintaining the status quo include:

  • 18 is recognised as the age at which young people enter adulthood and gain a number of responsibilities and freedoms, including the right to vote and to buy a drink

  • increasing the legal drinking age will not result in a decrease in alcohol-related harm among young people (“they’ll just get it anyway”)

  • in a country where individuals are legally obliged to vote at age 18, it is unlikely to gain political support.

The debate might be characterised as one about evidence, community expectations and political risk. The evidence about the benefits of increasing the minimum legal purchase age is strong – it does reduce access to alcohol and reduces harm. But good quality evidence does not always translate to community support or legislative change. While about half of Australians support increasing the drinking age, there is still much contention.

Some argue that before we consider changing the laws on age of access, we should focus on resourcing more effective enforcement of, and other strategies to ensure compliance with, the existing laws. These include not serving alcohol to under 18s, not serving intoxicated patrons, and continuing to focus on random breath testing reduces rates of young drink drivers and the associated trauma.

There are some existing strategies that help reduce harms of alcohol, such as random breath testing to discourage drink driving. Flickr/bobtravis

It’s important to remind ourselves of the range of other controls and responses that can reduce harm, including those that affect the availability and promotion of alcohol to young people. Some jurisdictions have recently adopted “secondary supply legislation” which determines that only a legal guardian has the right to decide whether or not to allow their child to drink in private settings, and it will be important to assess the impact of this response.

I’m not comfortable simply trying to cut through the debate about the legal drinking age by artlessly pointing to the evidence. But it is time to encourage an informed community debate about effective approaches, to acknowledge the evidence, and perhaps test some novel approaches, to address the well-founded concern about alcohol-related harm among young Australians.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. Tim Benham

    Student of Statistics

    So if their brains are still developing why do we let them vote? I don't believe that making a person's rights contingent on arbitrary characteristics such as age or gender is desirable.

    1. Stephen McCormick

      Research Fellow (Mathematics) at University of New England

      In reply to Tim Benham

      So you'd be happy with permitting a 5 year old to smoke and drink? Or drive a truck?

      Obviously you have to set some minimum age for things; the discussion is in deciding what age is appropriate.

    2. Tim Benham

      Student of Statistics

      In reply to Tim Benham

      Why is that? if the 5 year old is competent to do those things why shouldn't she?

      Moreover, even if such distinctions were necessary in a few cases that would not make them desirable in general. If you want to invent a new class of people with diminished rights because of their age then I think that requires a strong justification.

    3. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Tim Benham

      The point is Tim that it is NOT up to the hypothetical 5 yo to decide whether or not he/she is competent to drive.

      It is up to we adults to make that decision!

  2. Ben Neill

    Mobile/Web Applications Developer

    I'd be interested to see how they worked out the reductions among young people - were those deaths and injuries mostly shunted into the successive years? i.e. did they class 'young people as 18 to 25 for both or 21 to 28 for the second test? I suspect either way it will be higher but I wonder by how much.

    I think that legislating things like this are just nanny state rules and should be dealt with in ways other than prohibition. I feel these types of rules take the responsibility off the individual and onto the state which only compounds the problem.

  3. Jarrod Chestney-Law

    Telecommunications Engineer

    Everyone I know was drinking well before 18, so I don't think it much matters what you set the age as. Perhaps rather than banning things, it would make more sense to encourage a cultural change in attitude to alcohol so that even if it is available, there will be less interest in abusing it.

    Nah...who am I kidding. Easier to ban it and shake our heads in confusion as the ban has no effect. Kids these days... After all, the alcopops tax certainly changed behaviour. Kids are much more comfortable mixing their own spirits these days, so, at least we've taught them something.

    1. Toby Paltridge

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jarrod Chestney-Law

      I agree. Cultural change is preferable to bluntly imposing a higher minimum drinking age. It takes more effort and time to implement, but IMO is more effective in the long term.

      I work with young university students in a residential environment and my organisation has seen a significant decline in alcohol consumption amongst residents over the past few years as the result of promoting responsible consumption of alcohol and informing residents about the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption.

  4. Haydon Dennison


    Obviously, simply raising the age to 21 isn't going to solve every underage drinking problem that ever there was, but I don't see why that means it shouldn't be done. To solve an issue as complex as the issues in youthful drinking requires multiple steps to be taken, of which one that seems obvious is raising the legal drinking age. Others would include more and better greater awareness programs, and, as best as possible, encouraging cultural change in how alcohol is perceived and lessening its social…

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  5. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Personally if we let teenagers vote and drive at 18, we need to treat them as adults - and they should be accountable as adults.

    If we raise the drinking age limit, then let's go back to 21 being the adult age of legality.

    We do not live in a nanny state, but need to treat those who abuse alcohol and commit offences with give robust sentences or stiff penalties.

    If someone drink drives and is caught a second time - take their car away for 3 months, then 6 months, then for good.

    1. Isabel Jackson

      PhD Researcher at The University of Melbourne

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      A slight tangent to the article but a comment on the suggestion made here by Stephen - The "take the car away" tactic is, I understand, already used in some circumstances such as "hooning". It seems to be based on the assumption not only that driver is always owner if the car, but there are not any other vehicles that the driver might use subsequently.

      Does anyone have any info on the efficacy of this approach? Things might have changed dramatically since I had the odd drink or six and even more so since I was 18 years old. I am not saying that it isn't effective response - I really haven't looked at any of the data and don't have any anecdotal references either (Yes, yes, I know anecdotes aren't evidence but they do give at least part of the picture).

    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Taking away the car driven by the offender might actually be better if it is NOT owned by the offender. It serves as a message to both the offender AND whomever was silly enough to give up the car to the idiot.

      Or keep them inside their home perimeter for up to 3 months - with an electronic ankle bracelet - if the "crime" warrants it.

      I mean do we want to get serious about the damage done to the community by these complete fools.

    3. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      "It serves as a message to both the offender AND whomever was silly enough to give up the car to the idiot."
      Stephen, that is a very good point.

  6. Tony Xiao

    retired teacher

    Many of us were seasoned drinkers and well on the way to alcoholism before we hit 18 and that was more than a decade before the legal drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18 during the Vietnam days.

    Any similar study into Australia drinking habits prior to lowering the drinking age would have probably produced the same worrying statistics.

    Problem drinking is also more noticeable now with population growth (Australia's population at the time of change in 1974 was 13.5 million)
    giving up more drinkers and more venues not to mention considerable increase in opportunities and avenues for alcohol advertising.

    Excessive drinking is not an age problem but more a socializing problem within a culture evolved from the folklore of the working man and mateship.

  7. ian cheong

    logged in via email

    The legal drinking age in most countries on earth is 18.

    So that in itself is substantial evidence to maintain the status quo.

    In several european countries (including austria, belgium, germany, italy, luxembourg, switzerland), it is 16 (possibly limited to beer, wine and cider).

    This report shows there is no consistent relationship between drinking age (21 in USA vs lower in many european countries) and problem drinking behaviour. On the chart "Percent of 15-16 Year Olds Reporting Intoxication in the Last 30 Days", belgium, italy and portugal did much better than the USA despite their much lower legal drinking age.

    It appears the problem is probably a cultural problem rather than an age problem.

    1. Phil Dolan


      In reply to ian cheong

      'It appears the problem is probably a cultural problem rather than an age problem.'

      Amazing. I read the article. I read the comments. I get to the last comment, the last sentence of the last comment and it is the only truth. Nice one Ian.

      Some cultures drink, some get stoned, some drink tea.

      Education. Australia teaches people to drink.

    2. Georg Antony


      In reply to ian cheong

      Yes, Ian, in many Continental countries 16 year olds can legally buy beer, wine and cider. In Mediterranean countries, wine with meals are standard practice for teenagers. Binge drinking is not endemic in Southern Europe.

      Moreover, in Jewish cultural tradition, even children are given small amounts of wine with meals as a ritual. I don't think Jews are known for binge drinking.

      You are absolutely right, it is a matter of culture.

  8. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Maybe some decisions are not about 'evidence'. Whether people have the right to do what they choose at 18 is a moral judgement.

    Perhaps one reason we're so dispirited by politicians is nowadays they rely on 'the experts advise X so I have no choice' rather than 'X is right'. Maybe that's why we're so captivated by the marriage equality issue - because it's about taking a stand on what we believe is just.

    Any moral argument must be internally consistent or people will laugh at it. So if we believe 18-year-olds shouldn't make choices about drinking, we should also say they shouldn't vote.

    1. Tim Benham

      Student of Statistics

      In reply to James Jenkin

      > Maybe some decisions are not about 'evidence'. Whether people have the right to do what they choose at 18 is a moral judgement.

      Indeed. The proposal could be creeping prohibition by stealth. If they succeeded in raising the drinking age to 21 (the number seems arbitrary and suspiciously the same as the traditional age of adulthood) I would be surprised if they didn't discover that 21-24 year-olds then suffered disproportionate alcohol-related harms.

      > if we believe 18-year-olds shouldn't make choices about drinking, we should also say they shouldn't vote.

      It did cross my mind to ask that if 18-21 year olds are particularly vulnerable to alcohol and bad decision making around it due to the incomplete development of their brains, why do we let them vote?

    1. Ben Neill

      Mobile/Web Applications Developer

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      I believe they are taxed more heavily, which I think is an acceptable method. Limiting the strength is just an annoyance - some spirits like Absynthe are very strong but intended to be consumed with water as part of the preparation. It'll me almost impossible to source if they do that. Per unit taxation is the best method I believe, things like Absynthe are still available, but not appealing to binge drinkers due to their price.

      From what I have seen, cheap wine tends to be the problem, followed by cheap spirits. Maybe reducing or removing taxation on light beer, cider & premixers would be a good option - steer them towards something that can't be smashed down so fast...

  9. Alan O'Neill

    Freelance Consultant / Inventor at freelance consultant

    The major issue to me is not the drinking age as the cultural issues dominate. We need to address the culture of drinking and specifically this means acting aggressively to make getting drunk uncool, embarrassing, unpalatable and to counteract the contrary advertising.. I will deal only with the former..

    The legislative framework currently places councils in charge of licensing and they benefit from the rates and license fees. They have no powers or funds or staff to ensure that venues and bar…

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  10. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Steve, your article refers to the legal drinking age, legal purchase age, and purchase and consumption in licensed premises, without noting that these are quite different in relation to setting up offenses under the law.
    I have friends in public health who assume that the current discussions about raising the 'legal age' will inevitably result in under-age drinkers being 'criminalised'. Presumably the law could prohibit the sale or supply to those who are underage without criminalising consumption…

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