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Pansy Speak: 18 going on 20

Pansy Speak
18 going on 20

The difficult conscience vote in 1999 for lowering the drinking age from 20 to 18 is still fresh in the memory of MPs as we face another bill that proposes putting the age back to 20.

I think there is some truth that legislation passes with relative ease through our Parliament because we have only one House of Representatives. More care needs to be taken to understand that the legislative changes we vote on can affect people’s lives dramatically and we shouldn’t underestimate the uncertainty, confusion and amount of education that is required for everyone to come to grips with the changes that are introduced.

The irony of this bill is that the ex-Alliance MP Matt Robson introduced it to the House yet he was a strong advocate for lowering the drinking age back in 1999. His change of heart last year had no effect on his political fortune and he was not re-elected. This bill has now been transferred to the care of a Labour MP.

The Law and Order Select Committee compiled a detail report on the bill which showed that the arguments for and against it are largely the same as in 1999. This time around they received 180 submissions, while in 1999 there were 2,283 submissions. Currently, 81 submitters support raising the drinking age, while 61 want to keep it 18. In 1999, the majority of people who commented in their submissions didn’t want the drinking age lowered. Currently 12 submitters prefer for there to be a split age for sale and supply of alcohol between on- and off-licensed premises.

I don’t support the split age scenario because this was one of the main arguments in favour of having a standardized age of 18 – it was seen as problematic for enforcement and confusing for the public and for licence holders.

There have been many reasons given for raising the age back to 20, including the harm alcohol poses to youth with drink-drive injuries, violence, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, mental illness, impaired brain development, self-harm, suicide and addiction. Supporters claim that youth are more likely to experience harm than older people.

Opponents of the bill have argued that it will contribute to the inconsistencies for the rights and responsibilities, under law, of young people. You can join the army at 17, get married and vote at 18. Therefore, 18 is generally accepted to be the age at which people are responsible enough to make their own decisions about the way they live their lives, and that the majority of 18-year-olds are mature enough to consume alcohol responsibly.

Despite their differences, both sides agree on two things. First, that a minimum purchase age is needed – this is backed up by the World Health Organization which supports a minimum purchase age as an effective tool for reducing youth drinking.

Secondly, they both agree that New Zealand‘s drinking culture is a problem, particularly binge drinking. Supporters of raising the age think it will curb the drinking culture. Those opposing it argue that raising the purchasing age won’t stop teens drinking.

In 1999 I voted against the lowering of the purchase age from 20 to 18 because I didn’t think we had a mature drinking culture. At the time, many people assured me that the drinking culture had improved during the 1990’s compared to previous years following the relaxing of restrictions. We’ve all heard the tales about the 6 o’clock swill. The number of liquor outlets has increased from 1,985 in 1989 to 15,475 in 2004. The availability of alcohol is said to be curbing the urge to binge drink, while others think it provides too much temptation.

In the meantime, what’s happening in other English-speaking countries? The purchase age in Australia, Ireland and the UK is 18, with different restrictions applying in particular circumstances. In the USA it is 21, and France 16. Most of these countries have a number of restrictions on the entry of minors to licensed premises, like allowing minors to be on licensed premises when they’re accompanied by a parent or guardian.

I am keen to hear what you think about the proposal to raise the age for purchasing alcohol. Have you noticed any improvement, or deterioration, in our drinking culture since the age was lowered to 18 in 1999?

Pansy Wong


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