Raising the legal age for alcohol purchase to 21 would reduce alcohol-related harm in Australia

12 May 2014

There is strong evidence and increasing support to raise the minimum age for purchasing alcohol from 18 to 21, leading public health experts argue in The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).

In the MJA paper the authors, Professor John Toumbourou (Deakin University), Professor Kypros Kypri (University of Newcastle), Professor Sandra Jones (Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong), Professor Ian Hickie (Brain & Mind Research Institute), review evidence from the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia that indicates increasing the legal alcohol purchase age is likely to reduce youth alcohol use and harm.

Lead author Professor John Toumbourou (Deakin University) said the majority of Australians now support this policy.

"From 2004 to 2010 the percentage supporting this policy increased from 40.7 per cent to 50.2 per cent," he said.

"In all states the community is concerned at escalating youth alcohol-related harm. Australians are increasingly aware that this policy is supported by strong evidence that it can reduce youth problems."

The authors of the paper are part of a growing number of public health leaders who are calling for the legal purchase age to be raised.

"Raising the legal age will reduce not only youth alcohol problems but also other forms of drug use," Professor Toumbourou said.

"We recently published a cross-national study that compared Australian young adults with those in the United States. We found the US youth had lower use of alcohol even after age 21, but also lower use of tobacco and illicit drugs such as amphetamines.

"When they were surveyed ten years earlier as secondary school aged adolescents the majority of the US youth (69 per cent) abstained from alcohol, tobacco or illicit drug use while only a minority abstained in Australia (42 per cent). Raising the legal age to 21 in the US in the mid-1980s led to a rapid decline in secondary school students using alcohol. The reduced alcohol use in the US is associated with other drug use also being unfashionable."

In the paper the authors explain how the youth brain is still developing at age 18 and many youth experience irreversible brain damage due to the heavy alcohol use that is now considered normal among young Australians.

"Raising the legal age will send a clear public health message that alcohol is a neurotoxin for our young people and result in the whole population of adolescents across Australia growing up using less alcohol. This will lead to a generational change in Australian culture toward moderate adult alcohol use gradually becoming more normal," they argue in the MJA paper.

"Raising the legal purchase age is an effective and increasingly popular policy that can support other effective measures such as increasing price, restricting marketing and reducing the easy availability of alcohol. This could be done in a variety of ways – through a national agreement or with one state acting alone to trial measures such as restricting youth buying heavy spirits from bottle shops, as happens in Norway and Sweden."

 

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