Recently at my checkout, after ‘ID’ing’ someone for their alcohol purchase, the man behind stated his strong belief that the legal drinking age should be raised to 21, as it is in America. At the time, I humoured him, seeking to avoid conflict and deal with his custom as quick as possible. However this got me thinking about my own opinion.
In short, I wholly disagree with the gentleman in question. Raising the drinking age to 21, in my opinion would do little to reduce Britain’s binge drinking culture and if anything I think the answer might be in the opposite direction. Although as this blog post will stress, age itself is irrelevant and I’m not advocating a lowering of the drinking age necessarily.
Just because an individual is 18 or indeed 21, does not miraculously make them a responsible drinker. People of all ages are admitted into hospital due to alcohol related injuries. Indeed, speaking from my own experiences of myself and of friends, the quantities I consumed as a 17 year-old were not only far smaller but far more sociable than perhaps what I or others consume now at the age of 21. Age has not necessarily brought with it better drinking habits and people of all ages will always drink a little too much on occasion. Bear in mind, these are people who are only looking to have a good time and have no intention of causing undue harm onto themselves or others, even if they perhaps are.
The United States, with its higher drinking age still has its alcohol problems and booze is easily available in a ‘fake ID’ culture. Likewise, the drinking age is lower (16) in many continental European countries with a variety of experiences.
Really this issue boils down to one of culture. Unfortunately human beings will always be intrigued by intoxication by alcohol or other means. However we have developed as a society a culture in which the goal of an evening out is to get thoroughly w***ered which surely cannot be healthy? I am no saint in this regard, I too have gone “hard” on a night out but it’s worth pointing out some of my favourite nights have involved far smaller quantities of alcohol whilst still enjoying the buzz which it provides. Thus, the goal ultimately is surely to promote a better drinking culture? One of responsibility. However raising the drinking age to 21 will only glorify alcohol and discourage responsible use once readily available.
Raising the drinking age, raising duty on alcohol and minimum unit pricing will not create this culture. Law and order (whilst important on cracking down on alcohol-related anti-social behaviour) cannot impose a responsible drinking culture. It disproportionately impacts on the poor and creates a class issue of a problem that transcends ‘class’ boundaries. Although some minimum pricing might be reasonable in the case of cheap alcopops or other youth-targeted alcohol.
To create such a culture will inevitably take time, it will require a dominant cultural discourse via TV adverts (such as those used to encourage safe sex) and of course it will need better alcohol education both at home and at school. It means cracking down on alcohol companies advertising products such as “Crunk Juice” and selling intoxication to adolescents. Otherwise the lure of alcohol will not be lowered. Indeed I would argue a higher drinking age makes alcohol more attractive to youngsters. It definitely did for me.
So ideas for achieving such a culture? Apart from those outlined briefly above, why not lower the drinking age for those purchasing alcohol in pubs whilst maintaining 18 as the age to purchase alcohol in supermarkets. Pubs/bars could be given the freedom to decide whether to allow 16-18 year olds to enter the premises, perhaps only permitting entrance on weekend evenings? Establishments such as pubs could then serve alcohol without fear of misidentification and a possible fine from authorities. Pubs could serve as safer environments for this age group to consume alcohol. Prices are much higher than ‘bargains’ at supermarkets, landlords/landladies could use their own discretion in serving alcohol, withholding if they feel the individual in question has had enough. Furthermore, the lure of drinking at a pub or a bar would be much stronger for the average 16-18 year old and the novelty of drinking could wear off with no damaged caused. Its certainly an idea. Anything that prevents young people drinking copious amounts of cheap supermarket booze in a short space of time must be entertained as an alternative.
Furthermore, perhaps alcohol beverages with a certain volume could be sold whilst others not? It is much harder to get wasted on beer at 4% which makes you feel bloated rather than a bottle of vodka at 35% which can be undue harm. Indeed, beers and ciders allow you to understand how intoxicated you are as you drink them whilst often spirits will hit you all at once.
Understandably, such measures could cause confusion and would have to be properly thought out before becoming law but one thing is certain. Britain does have a dangerous drinking culture, of which many sensible and normal people are guilty of and the drinking age is largely irrelevant.