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Hamish McKenzie - serious drinker, London, Ontario

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Boozer losers

When I was a teenager growing up in Alexandra, I made a habit of getting slaughtered in the weekends. It was par for the course. Each weekend we'd end up at some kid's house whose parents were invariably away, we'd trash the place, and half of us would end up vomitting on the sidewalk. It was ingrained in our culture -- and I wasn't the worst. It was never difficult to get booze. Usually we'd just get our 18-year-old friends to go down to the liquor store to get it. This was pre-1999, before the legal drinking age was lowered to 18, but ID checks were really just an inconvenient impediment to business for liquor sellers.

I was a happy lad, then, when the government changed the law in 1999. I was 18, and it meant I could go to the pub to celebrate finishing my bursary exams. It meant that next year, in my first year at Otago University, I could drink without fear of impunity -- save vicious hangovers, memory loss, and poor beer-goggled decisions. It made sense to me: at 18 I was old enough to live by myself, old enough to go and kill other humans on behalf of New Zealand for the armed services, and old enough to pollute my insides with the poisonous smoke from cigarettes.

But it looks as though that law change that pleased me so much has caused damage. According to ALAC, since the lowering of the drinking age young people who do drink are drinking more heavily, more often, and start drinking from an earlier age. Research has also suggested an increase in teenage drinking-related hospital admissions, and more teenage drink-driving convictions.

So, Matt Robson of the Regressive Coalition -- and apparently a few others -- want to raise the drinking age back to 20. The proposal, which includes limiting alcohol advertising on TV to after 10pm, has been drawn from the ballot to be heard before Parliament. Many MPs will be in favour of this quick fix 'solution' to a drinking problem that has received constant publicity ever since the law change took effect.

It's a quick fix that won't change shit.

It's not surprising that young people are drinking more from a younger age. Look, for a start, at the advertising of alcohol. DB Export's rampantly successful "Export Yourself!" campaign, for instance, is slick, brainless, and it's patently clear that it's targetted at the younger set of drinkers in society. Same with the tedious "Yeah Right" Tui campaign that frequently references popular culture (Example: "There's Nothing Wrong With Miriam. Yeah Right." It took me a while to figure this one out...). Added to this is the fact that drink companies are successfully packaging their lolly-water RTD drinks to look sweet, harmless, and fun -- not too dissimilar from a bottle of, say, Coke, or Red Bull.

As well as this, young people these days seem more inclined to fuck themselves up in general -- they're not just turning to the drink. I know it's a little old -- though it should at least be an indicator for a trend -- but a 2001 study showed that, from 1998, there was a 5% increase in the number of 15--17-year-olds who had used marijuana in the last month. Increases in the use of any stimulants for the same age group ranged from 1.6 to 5.3%. Marijuana use in New Zealand is illegal for everyone (medical use aside), but that hasn't stopped the rising youth 'drug problem'.

I can accept that there are more young people drinking, and from a younger age. And it's probably true that the lowering of the drinking age has made alcohol more accessible for younger teens. But raising the age to 20 isn't going to make it much harder for the young ones to get their hands on the stuff -- I had no problem as a 16-year-old getting whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted; and even though weed is illegal, it's pretty much freely available. On the other hand, it would quite likely result in more young drinkers (particularly 18- and 19-year-olds) out on the streets, in parks, and other public places.

The question, then, should not be "should 18-year-olds be allowed to drink?", but "how do we make it less desirable for youngsters to drink?" We could start by looking at ourselves: 635,000 Kiwi adults drink at least once a week and binge. We have role models like rugby player Norm Hewitt, MPs like Winston Peters and Dover Samuels, and former Police Commissioners like Peter Doone. We so freely partake in this culture of drinking yet are clueless as to how to prevent our younger citizens becoming just like us.

Simply making the demon drink illegal for those under 18 seems like such an easy way to deal to the problem -- it requires no effort or responsibility for most of us. Yet I would hazard a guess that the move would only fuel teenage desire to get even more loaded even more regularly. As Dr John Orley, Chairman of the unfortunately-named Clifford Beers Foundation (no, it's not a brewery; it's an International Centre for Mental Health Promotion) argues:

"The more alcohol is demonized and the more it is presented to young people as a prohibited drug of abuse, expected to be taken in excess, the more its consumption appeals to their 'reckless' side... On the other hand, where moderate alcohol consumption is culturally acceptable, young people's drinking patterns and perceptions of alcohol may be less geared toward excess."

Orley points out that young people in societies where alcohol is treated ambivalently -- like in New Zealand -- tend to get drunk more frequently than in alcohol-producing nations like Italy, Portugal, and France. The drinking age in France, by the way, is 16.

Robson's proposal does have one good point: ban alcohol advertising on TV before 10pm. In fact, I would go even further -- let's ban alcohol advertising all together, like we do for cigarettes. After all, alcohol is not necessarily a lesser evil than cigarettes. And I hate to keep harking back to it, but weed seems to do alright without any advertising at all. I'm sure the mighty alcohol lobby wouldn't be too happy about, but it would be nice to not see drinking portrayed as a sexy and harmless activity.

And here's a suggestion for lowering the teen drink-driving convictions: raise the legal age for driving to 18. It's an easier law to enforce, it would get rid of a whole number of boy racers, and it would reduce the number of teen road accidents. Trust me, a testerone-pumped 16-year-old boy doesn't need to be boozed to drive like an idiot.