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Youth Parliament Debates Youth Drinking

Youth Parliament Debates Youth Drinking
16 August 2004

The Alcohol Advisory Council today supported a return to a purchase age of 20 years, but warned that this would not be the magical cure for New Zealand’s youth drinking problem that many thought it would.

The call was made as New Zealand’s Youth Parliament debated the issue in Parliament today. Paula Snowden, Deputy Chief Executive of the Alcohol Advisory Council, the organisation whose role it is to provide information and advice on how to reduce alcohol-related harm, cautioned on seeing raising the age as “the sole answer” to problems associated with young people and risky drinking.

Ms Snowden also said there is misunderstanding over what is commonly referred to as New Zealand’s legal “drinking age”.

“New Zealand does not have a minimum legal drinking age. We have a minimum purchase age. That means, if a young person is drunk, they have either been illegally or irresponsibly supplied by an adult. It is illegal for anyone under 18 years old to purchase alcohol, and it is illegal for anyone other than a parent or guardian (not a brother, a sister, a boyfriend or anyone else) to buy alcohol on behalf of those under 18.

“But it is not illegal for those under 18 to be in possession of alcohol or to consume it in a private home.”

Ms Snowden said this was quite different to the situation in the United States where they had a minimum legal drinking age. “There, no one under a specified age (this varies from state to state but is generally set at 20-years-old) can legally either drink or purchase alcohol, which creates an entirely different drinking environment and culture. Raising the purchase age here will not have the same effect that raising the drinking age had in Canada and the United States.

“When the age at which alcohol can be legally purchased was lowered to 18, ALAC vigorously opposed the move, however, raising it now will not be the ‘quick fix’ that some people think.” Ms Snowden said, noting that over half the young people, 12 to 17 years of age, who binge drink socially say it is their parents who give them the alcohol to drink. Raising the legal purchase age to 20 will not deal with the illegal or irresponsible supply of alcohol to young people by adults.

“If New Zealand wants to move towards a legal drinking age, that is a whole other argument with a whole set of implications, such as prosecuting young people drinking in private settings, and it is probably something needing broad public debate.”

ALAC says it is more important to focus on enforcement of the current purchase age law. This was an issue when the purchase age was lowered, and still is now. It is calling for the current laws to be enforced by conducting Controlled Purchase Operations and bringing prosecutions that incur serious penalties for suppliers who break the law.

Supervision was another issue. In a recent survey by ALAC, 63 percent of adults said they set strict rules about their children drinking, yet only half of them knew when their children drank. “Supervising young people's drinking is essential,” said Ms Snowden, “Evidence shows that the younger they start drinking in an unsupervised way, the greater propensity for getting into problems with alcohol later on.”

Paula Snowden said that instead of pointing the finger at the young people, attention should be directed at the risky drinking culture that was prevalent across all ages in New Zealand society.

“Binge drinking is often seen as the domain of youth. But our recent research showed that 1.2 million New Zealanders display binge drinkers attitudes and behaviours. So if we are going to address the teenage binge drinking, we also need to change the adult binge drinking culture that young people cannot help but be caught up in.

“ALAC would be happy to see the purchase age return to 20, but it’s important people know that New Zealand’s drinking culture needed to change,” Ms Snowden told the Youth Parliament, and that was something legislation alone cannot achieve.


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