The Croakey debate about the merits of raising the legal drinking age continues…

Dr Tanya Chikritzhs, an Associate Professor and Statistical Advisor at the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI), Curtin University of Technology, says there are good reasons for thinking such a move could bring wide-ranging and important benefits.

She writes:

“The argument for lowering the drinking age in some Australian states in the late 1960s and 1970s did not have the benefit of decades of scientific research evidence. In the Australian states that did not already have 18 years as the minimum legal purchase age (MLPA), the decision to drop the age limit was made in the context of war and the popular political argument went something like this; ‘If a young person’s life can be put at risk in the service of their country then surely the same 18 year old deserves a place at the local bar’.

Similar arguments have been put forward in relation to minimum drinking age and the legal age for voting, marriage, possession of firearms (in the USA) and other social activities.

Since the 1970s, a great deal of scientific research evidence has amassed on the impact of changing MLPA, and much of it comes from the USA (see Professor Wayne Hall’s Croakey article).

It is not well recalled and perhaps too often overlooked that there were in fact a number of Australian studies which showed that dropping the MLPA substantially increased road traffic fatalities and hospitalisations in this country. In SA, after reducing the MLPA from 21 to 20 yrs in 1968, road fatalities among 17-20 yr olds increased by about 76% in the 2 years immediately following the change. In WA, SA, Qld and Tas, increases in serious crash injuries among 17-20 year olds ranged from 10% to 23%.

The debate so far gives the impression that the evidence for MLPA extends only to road crashes but that is not the case. There were a handful of Australian studies which examined the impact of the reduced MLPA on juvenile crime and emergency department admissions.

Following the change, male juvenile crime (particularly burglary, motor vehicle larceny and drunkenness) increased by between 20% and 30% in QLD, SA, WA and Tas. Emergency department (ED) and hospital presentations for non-crash related injuries also increased.

In Qld, the number of 15-17 year old females admitted for assaultive injuries reportedly rose by some 150%. Significant increases (between 14% and 40%) in ED presentations were found for non-crash injuries such as falls, poisonings, burns, and drowning for young males and females.

In 2005, about 5,400 16-19 yr olds were hospitalised for road crash injuries while over 140 died. The annual count of hospitalisations for assault, falls, burns and drowning for this age group now exceeds 9,000. (Data on 17-20 yr olds could not be readily accessed.)

A single evidence-based intervention which could reduce these deaths and injuries by even 5% a year would be a substantial improvement on the status quo.

At the very least, raising the legal minimum drinking age is an idea worthy of more serious consideration than it’s being given when the debate regresses to 1960s rhetoric and bypasses decades of scientific research evidence.”