The drinking age - more precisely, the minimum age at which somebody can legally be sold alcohol - is much more than a liquor regulation. It is a social milestone that recognises every citizen's coming of age. It is not the only one. The voting age, also 18, is a more fitting mark of citizenship. But the drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18 near the end of the 20th century partly on the argument that if young people were considered old enough to vote, and could be called on to fight for their country, they could be trusted with alcohol too.
That argument seems to have fallen by the wayside since MPs began to have second thoughts about the drinking age a decade ago. Public health researchers pointed to a rise in binge-drinking among the young (not confined to the under-20s) and argued that teenagers under 18 had much easier access to alcohol once 18-year-olds could buy it. They wanted the age restored to 20. Their concerns were broadly endorsed by a Law Commission inquiry in 2009 which, however, suggested a compromise, splitting the age between 18 for drinking in licensed places and 20 for buying from other outlets.
Legislation appeared in 2010 to split the age and impose other conditions on liquor trading that are probably more effective against alcohol abuse. But the age remains the most contentious issue and will be the subject of a free or "conscience" vote when the Alcohol Reform Bill returns to the House soon for its crucial stage debates.
A straw poll by our parliamentary staff last week found MPs finely divided between three options: keeping the age at 18 for all purchasing (30 votes), raising it to 20 for all purchasing (27) and splitting the age (22). The remaining 42 had not yet decided or would not say, though 17 of them indicated leanings of about equal number in all directions.
Conscience votes are unpredictable and can be capricious. With three options on the floor the result could depend on the sequence in which they are put to the vote. The split could prevail if it is the final vote and neither of the others has a majority. It seems the most sensible response to the health issues that prompt the liquor reform. Binge-drinking and on-supply to under 18s can both be controlled in bars and other licensed places. The problems arise largely from liquor sold in bulk from supermarkets and liquor stores. It would make sense to raise the age to 20 for those sales, though it would seem far more effective to do as the Law Commission suggested and tackle the very low prices at which beer and ready-mixed drinks can be bought in bulk. A substantial increase in excise could discourage excessive consumption from off-licences without having much effect on the much higher prices of beer in licensed places.
But the fact that only the age clause of the bill is being accorded a conscience vote should remind MPs that the drinking age is more than a liquor issue. It has implications for the equal rights of those who are recognised as full citizens in all other respects. Can MPs justify depriving students and young people in work of the right to buy bulk supplies until they are 20? Or even the right to go into a bar, if the preference of public health officials is adopted?
When nzherald.co.nz put the options to readers of the website one day last week, most (66 per cent) favoured age 20 for all sales, against 19 per cent for the split and just 15 per cent for the status quo. Self-selecting polls show which option has the most supporters who care enough to cast a vote.
The case for lifting the age of all sales has more supporters in this Parliament than the last, and the split option has fewer. The mood seems to be running against 18- and 19-year-olds but their rights should not be forgotten. They ought at least to be able to buy a drink in a bar. The split proposal remains the right way to go.