Garth George
Garth George is a Herald columnist

Garth George: Let's raise the drinking age to 21

The younger the drinkers, the more damaging the effects of alcohol on their brains and bodies. Photo / Thinkstock
The younger the drinkers, the more damaging the effects of alcohol on their brains and bodies. Photo / Thinkstock

How many more children must die before the politicians stop dilly-dallying and make some radical changes to the liquor licensing laws?

Stories emerging about alcohol being served before the King's College school ball last weekend and the death of a student last year after he drank a bottle of vodka are simply the tip of a very large iceberg.

I wonder how many other children, who did not attend a prestigious school such as King's College, have died of excessive alcohol consumption in lower socio-economic areas and were quietly buried by the parents or caregivers without any blaze of publicity?

I have a good deal of sympathy for the principal and staff of King's College, for the alcohol consumption of their students off the premises is not their responsibility. That resides firmly with their parents.

The school chaplain, the Rev Warner Wilder, denies that teenagers attending the ball were grossly intoxicated after a pre-ball party.

Yet the school had a "withdrawal room" available. Perhaps next year it will have paramedics on hand, too.

But the worst feature of this tragic affair is that scores of youngsters were served booze at private pre-ball parties held by parents of King's College kids.

It seems to me that these people have absolutely no idea of the effect of alcohol on young bodies and minds.

Do they not know that alcohol is a powerful tranquilliser, a mind-altering chemical, a brain poison and a highly addictive drug and that its effect is more dangerous the younger the person drinking it is?

Heaven knows there has been enough evidence of that published in the past year or so. Last year we read the report of the Law Commission, Alcohol in Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, which recommended raising the legal drinking age to 20.

And just lately, a report prepared by the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, and others, recommends adamantly that the drinking age should revert to 21, which it was in my youth and young manhood. The report was prepared at the Prime Minister's request after the death of young James Webster.

In a chapter of the report on teenage drinking, Christchurch Health and Development Study academics Professors David Fergusson and Joseph Boden said the most effective reforms would be a "substantial rise" in the drinking age to 21, higher alcohol prices and limited availability.

It is patently obvious from both these well-researched documents that the drinking age has to go up, and I firmly believe it should go to 21.

United States experiences reinforces this view: every state in the union has been instructed by the federal Government to return the drinking age to 21 and those that have report almost immediate social and economic benefits.

But it should not stop there. The law should prescribe substantial penalties for any person who supplies liquor to anyone under the age of 21 in public or under 18 in private since it is obvious that many parents cannot be trusted to keep their children safe from the depredations of alcohol.

Other recommendations the Government should act on urgently are a regular and significant increase in the tax on alcohol products; all alcohol advertising should be banned, as it is for tobacco; and liquor outlets should not be allowed to advertise specials, or anything else for that matter, outside their premises.

The Law Commission report recommends that supermarkets and grocery stores (dairies) should be prohibited from selling some or all alcohol products, and for my money a raft of suburban booze peddlers should be closed, too.

Excessive drinking is not simply a problem affecting young people. It is one of the main reasons that 20 per cent of our population lives in poverty and far too many children and adults go hungry; it is a reason so many are on the DPB and other benefits; it accounts for much of our marital violence, murderous child abuse, violent crime, road deaths, drownings, suicides, unplanned pregnancies and venereal diseases, general health problems and homelessness.

Meanwhile all that is happening is that alcohol law "reforms" before Parliament will require MPs to decide whether to increase the alcohol purchasing age to 20 or create a "split age" of 18 in pubs and on-licences and 20 for off-licence sales.

Half measures will avail nothing. The "Shaky Isles" we might be, but save for Canterbury, most of the shaking comes from the thousands of Kiwis who wake up every morning with a shuddering hangover.

- NZ Herald

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