Pressure is mounting for Australian governments to raise the legal drinking age to 21 to protect the health of young people whose brains are still vulnerable to the toxicity of alcohol at 18, leading health experts say.
Four professors of mental health and public health have joined a growing list of influential Australians to call for a new legal drinking age that would bring Australia in line with the US where people cannot buy alcohol until they are 21.
They say raising the age limit would protect young people from the brain damage that can be caused by too much alcohol and the harms associated with being drunk, such as car accidents and violence.
Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, John Toumbourou of Deakin University’s School of Psychology, Ian Hickie of the Brain & Mind Research Institute, Kypros Kypri of the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle, and Sandra Jones from the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong, said there was increasing evidence that the accessibility of alcohol from the age of 18 was causing great harm to young people.
For example, they said a survey of 260 people aged 17 to 19 during end-of-school celebrations on the Queensland Gold Coast in 2010 showed 75 per cent played drinking games, 64 per cent consumed more than 10 drinks per night, and one in five had unprotected sex, in some cases with multiple partners.
The professors said evidence from the US and Canada suggested lifting the drinking age to 21 decreased rates of alcohol-related harm.
In the US, they said a review of 17 studies in various states that raised the legal drinking age found the average number of young people involved in road accidents decreased 16 per cent. Furthermore, they said research in some Canadian provinces showed that a higher minimum legal purchasing age reduced the number of young people being hospitalised due to alcohol use disorder, alcohol poisoning, suicidal behaviour and traffic crash injuries.
‘‘The evidence strongly suggests that raising the minimum purchasing age for alcohol would reduce youth alcohol-related harm in Australia,’’ they wrote.
The professors’ demand for a debate on a law change follows similar calls from the Australian Medical Association, Ita Buttrose, and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
The professors said that while the federal government could broker a coordinated agreement to amend all relevant regulations in the states to increase the legal purchasing age to 21, they could also follow the US government, which required all states to pass some form of age-21 purchasing legislation to receive funding for new highways.
Less challenging options included raising the legal purchasing age to 19 or 20, restricting the amount and types of alcohol young people could purchase or banning use in public places.