New Zealand's high youth death rate among developed nations has been blamed in part on its alcohol-buying age of 18.

A leading suicide researcher, Dr Annette Beautrais, of Auckland University, said this "relatively low minimum drinking age" was a more likely explanation than the better methods New Zealand has over some countries for recording and investigating deaths.

A comparison published in Britain's Lancet medical journal last week showed that of 27 relatively wealthy countries, New Zealand had the second-highest death rate for people aged 10 to 24. Driving this are the high death rates among teenagers and young adults from suicide and vehicle crashes.

The latest Health Ministry "youth" suicide statistics, for 2009, show that 114 people aged 15 to 24, of whom 93 were males, took their own lives in that year. That meant New Zealand still had the highest male youth suicide rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, at 29 deaths per 100,000, although this was significantly lower than in 1995, when the rate hit a high of 44.1 per 100,000.

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Dr Beautrais told the Science Media Centre that New Zealand's youth suicide rate was "shamefully high".

"For many years New Zealand has shared top ranking for youth suicide rates with Finland and Ireland. All three countries have a similar population size, so probably all report and count suicides equally well, but the most striking relevant similarity is the high use of alcohol among youth, which includes, in New Zealand, a prevalent culture of binge drinking.

"Addressing alcohol use and binge drinking in young people in New Zealand is one of the most obvious avenues to reducing both suicide and traffic mortality."

Alcohol was the second-most-important risk factor for suicide after depression, Dr Beautrais said yesterday.

In young people this was probably through the relaxing of inhibitions that occurred with intoxication and could lead to impulsive, aggressive, angry behaviour. This could increase the risk of a suicide attempt, or of doing something the person was later ashamed of, which could increase the risk of suicidal behaviour.

The Government's proposal to partially increase the alcohol purchase age from 18 is expected back before Parliament within weeks in the final reading of the wide-ranging Alcohol Reform Bill.

The bill proposes a split purchase age: 18 in bars and other places with an on-licence, and 20 for off-licence bottle stores, including supermarkets.

Dr Beautrais said that, on its own, the split age was unlikely to have much impact on the suicide rate.

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