A move to raise the drinking age back to 20 has suffered a major blow today, with New Zealand's largest doctors' group opposing it.
The New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) made its position known today, immediately after police had voiced fears that more young women were becoming crime victims as a result of increased drinking.
Both groups appeared before Parliament's law and order select committee, which is considering the Sale of Liquor Amendment Bill.
The NZMA opposed lowering the drinking age in 1999 and up until recently had supported raising it back to 20.
But NZMA chairman Ross Boswell today told the committee the association had reversed its position because it believed underage drinking could be better addressed through proper enforcement of alcohol sales and tighter advertising restrictions.
There was no clinical evidence to suggest that alcohol was more harmful to an 18-year-old than a 20-year-old.
Dr Boswell said the fact police were apprehending children as young as 10 for drinking showed the legal age was not the major problem.
Rather, it was lax enforcement and poor attitudes among family members and friends in regard to supplying minors with alcohol.
He pointed to recent police stings which showed up to a third of bottle stores were not even asking young people for ID.
The association supported a tighter advertising regime including banning television alcohol ads before 10pm and moving regulation to an external body rather than the current industry one -- in line with the provisions of the bill.
Dr Boswell said there had been vigorous debate amongst NZMA members -- many of them medical students -- over its position, but the majority felt that raising the age would penalise the majority of responsible 18 and 19-year-olds for the actions of a minority.
Many members also felt it was hypocritical to raise the drinking age to 20 when young people could join the army, get married and vote at 18.
The bill passed its first reading 78-41 in Parliament, but many MPs reserved their final judgment so the public could have their say.
That means future votes are likely to be much closer and the positions of influence-wielding groups such as the NZMA more important.
Earlier police alcohol strategic adviser Senior Sergeant Grant Verner told the committee there was concern that increased drinking in 15-and 16-year-old girls was leading to more of them becoming crime victims.
There was no data yet to back this up but police were would soon start collecting information in the area.
National planning and policy manager Superintendent Dave Trappitt said there had been a rise in alcohol-related offending since the drinking age was lowered.
The most common offence was breaching an alcohol ban, followed by drink driving, vandalism, disorder and fighting.
It was difficult to draw conclusions from the data as it was not being collated in its current form before the drinking age change -- meaning it was difficult to tell if the trend towards higher offending was already established.
Police were not voicing an opinion on the bill. They were merely presenting evidence to the committee, he said.
But Beer Wine and Spirits council chief executive Nicki Stewart told the committee there was no conclusive evidence that lowering the drinking age harmed young people.
It also supported the current advertising regime, which allowed alcohol ads on TV after 8.30pm, which was in line with adult viewing times.
Alcohol advertising was more about brand differentiation rather than encouraging people to drink more, Ms Stewart said.