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David Miller: Overcoming Youth Drinking

David Miller Online

The Problems in Overcoming Youth Drinking


Last week’s announcement by the government that it undertaking a review of the liquor laws is a step in the right direction towards alleviating the problems associated with youth binge drinking and alcoholism. However, while the announcement is a positive sign, one cannot help get the feeling that the move is rather like closing the gate after the horse has bolted and those wishing to address the problems of young people and their drinking face an uphill battle. The option called for most often by those concerned with the levels of youth drinking in this country is a revision of the legal age that requires a person to be 20 before they can buy alcohol. However when it comes to youth binge drinking, taking this option will solve little.

Those wishing to see a return to the days when the legal age for alcohol purchasing raised back to 20, claim that a lot more young people are have gained access to alcohol since the law change and that drinking among the 15-18 year-old age group has increased as feared. The argument put forward is that the age of those being supplied with alcohol has dropped to as low as 10 and 12, whereas before the law change it was closer to 17. This lobby, which constitutes the police, the members of the medical fraternity and alcohol advisory groups, have also based their arguments on the increase in bad behaviour that they see as a result of increased alcohol consumption. They point to the increase in the number of drunken youths arriving at hospitals, the violence that has marred many of our cities and towns on weekends at night and the increased risk involving drink driving.

However the lowering of the drinking age was not the beginning of this problem nor will it’s revoking be the end of the matter. The problems are far more wide-ranging than simply taking this one option and it is these that need to be addressed if any progress is to be made. The main issue is that alcohol is so easy to obtain, even for someone under the legal age. All it takes is for someone with the correct identification to be prepared to buy the alcohol and it is problem solved for those without such means. Without taking the time involved to gain a signed confession that someone bought alcohol to supply to minors, there is little the police can do to control this and the volume of human traffic in this regard is simply too great for this to be feasible.

The second problem is directly related to this, in that a large number of young and not so young people are drinking at private functions, parties and binge sessions rather than at licensed premises. One point of view that I heard was that by allowing young people into bars and nightclubs it placed them in an environment that was supervised and their behaviour could be monitored and controlled. The truth of the matter is that many young people cannot afford to spend their entire night drinking in a bar and buying alcohol from a bottle store provides people with an option that is both more affordable and extends a persons spending power. Hence what is happening is that by the time young people make it into the central city, they are already intoxicated and are not going into the pubs and bars; instead choosing to hang around on the streets. A Christchurch taxi driver pointed this out to me as I left the Oxford Terrace area in the small hours one Sunday morning. Even at the hour I left town, there were still large groups of youths hanging around the central city, talking to their friends and drinking in the street.

While these are only two of the problems associated with youth drinking, they nevertheless present major hurdles that must be dealt with and will not be erased with an increase in the drinking age. It is interesting to see that Green Party co leader Rod Donald has called for alcohol advertising to be restricted to R18 media, a plan that will do nothing to deal with the underage drinking problem. Unfortunately for Mr. Donald’s idea, it is not simply a case of out of sight, out of mind.

Restricting alcohol advertising and enforcement is only one small part of the way in which the problem can be overcome and realistically it is not the most effective option. Young people can still acquire alcohol as was discussed earlier in this column and there are also reports that young people are acquiring alcohol from their parents. If this is the becoming the case, then no amount of policing can prevent the problem unless the youth’s themselves fall into police hands and it can be proved the parent was the source of the drink. Once again the volume in human traffic along with peer pressure to drink becomes the enemy.

New Zealand has long had a complex relationship with alcohol and it has become part of our culture. The images of ‘rugby, racing and beer’ and the ‘six o’clock swill’ are so often looked upon with nostalgia as part of the good ol’ kiwi bloke syndrome and this shows that drink has long been a major part of people’s lives. The problem now is that rather than their parents going out drinking and falling down it is their children, so people have become concerned. If the government and other groups are serious about dealing with youth alcoholism they will realise that the most effective tool in seeing this problem dealt with is education and the changing of attitudes, along with awareness that implementing such policies will take time and results will not happen immediately. Clamping down on those selling and advertising alcohol is only one small part of the process in which this problem can be dealt with, and any knee jerk reactions such as raising the drinking age will not help at all. Attitudes must be changed, but this education must first come from parents and schools and the emphasis for any campaign must focus here. If we are realistic then we will accept that overcoming the problems mentioned above will be a huge task, but not insurmountable and that they should have been dealt with long before the drinking age was lowered.

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