Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Minimum drinking age [updated]

David Farrar has been pushing (here and here) for the implementation of a minimum drinking age rather than an increase in the minimum purchase age. In New Zealand, minor in possession of alcohol isn't an offense but purchase by a minor is.

Implementing a minimum drinking age, with infringement punishable by a small fine but with potential for the police to insist on the kid coming to court, is a far better solution to whatever perceived problems there might be with minors drinking than is an increase in the minimum purchase age.

A fair few folks who get irritated by drunk kids are irritated because drunk kids are often, well, really really irritating. We've been mildly annoyed by raucous house parties down the street from us from time to time. But a minimum drinking age solves that problem rather handily: you'd be amazed how better behaved teenage house parties can be if everyone there knows he or she could get a ticket if the cops busted the party. And because everyone knows that, few parties ever become enough of a problem for the cops ever to have to bust the party. Growing up in Manitoba, the minimum drinking age was 18 unless you were in your parents' company. Of course, everyone was drinking from 16 or so onwards, but we did it discretely, because we didn't want the $99 fine. And, the RCMP typically used discretion wisely. If a group of kids weren't bothering anyone but had booze, they'd usually just ask that they dump it out or, at worst, ask the kids who from the group wanted to take the ticket with everyone else chipping in for costs. But if they were up to no good, everyone could get the ticket and could be hauled up in court. Nobody wanted that, so the vast majority behaved. And the ones that didn't got fines.

I think Farrar's being rather too strict in saying it should be illegal for a 15 year old to have a glass of wine with his parents at dinner, but the general thrust is right. A minimum drinking age, with a lower limit for a minor accompanied by parents, makes a lot more sense than increasing the purchase age.

And, since it's David Farrar who's pushing it, I'm further shorting on iPredict the contracts paying a dollar if the minimum purchase age is increased to 20.

Update: Gonzo raises valid points against a minimum drinking age: namely, that kids will be put off bringing their friends to hospital if they're worried about being fined. I'd not support a minimum drinking age if it were more than an infringement notice with minimal fine because of those kinds of worries. I'd also hope for a policy barring hospitals from calling the cops on kids coming in for treatment for alcohol, and that such policies were well advertised to teens. And, I'd a fair bit about the use of police discretion if poor kids of the wrong colour wind up being more likely to get a fine than upper crust white kids for the same behaviour. On net, I'd expect a minimum drinking age to be less bad than increasing the minimum purchase age.

Update2: Matthew Proctor in comments advises that such matters would fall under doctor patient confidentiality, but also rightly notes that most paranoid teens wouldn't believe it absent a public education campaign.


  1. I wonder if there are time-dependent effects on teenage behaviour at house parties. If the drinking age is new (and enforcement unknown and scary), I imagine it's a stronger deterrent than if it's been around for a few generations and familiarity has had time to breed contempt.

  2. I agree that DPF's preferred option is too strict. I like the idea that drinking in company of your parents is OK, but drinking on your own has a minimum age. Effectively your parents are controlling your intake, and given we trust them with other things (feeding and clothing you for example), I'm guessing trusting them with how much you drink isn't too big a stretch.

  3. At the risk of sounding like I'm being blase, I'm not convinced that teenage drinking is any more of a problem than it was when I was that age. We used to get well pissed quite frequently, and sadly I knew one bloke that died as a consequence. He went to bed, passed out and choked on his own vomit. What happened to James Webster is a tragedy to be sure, but I have to say the current focus on teen drinking strikes me as being a bit of a media beat-up. I don't want to see the fun police spoil what can be a very enjoyable part of entering adulthood. Surely it is up to parents to teach their kids about responsible drinking. And if they choose not to, then they clearly don't care so much about their kids.

  4. @bluntobject: As far as we were concerned, the drinking age had always been around and we were worried about it.

    @PaulL: I like the Ira is a regular at the staff club where he regularly sees people drinking a beer or two in a responsible way.

    @Lats: I agree with you. My statement was conditional on wanting to do something: if something must be done, this is a better something than raising the purchase age to twenty.

  5. I'd also like to note that none of the legislative proposals would likely have made any difference in the case of James Webster, with the possible exception of minimum drinking age. The lad didn't buy his alcohol, he knicked it from a cupboard in his dead grandmothers house. It also sounds like he deliberately misled his family about his actions. And I'd wager that for the majority of teens rebelling against authority is part of the appeal of getting pissed with their mates.

  6. @Lats: Exactly, he'd have ended up dead regardless unless the age limit for alcohol was somewhere around 65, and even a minimum drinking age isn't going to prevent you drinking a bottle of vodka in a car.

    It's really unfortunate what has happened but at sixteen I'd guess he's responsible for his own actions. However it does sound like he'd grown up in an environment without alcohol around, which possibly explains his actions in procuring the alcohol and covering up his whereabouts that evening.

    Of course his parents may well have told him about the perils of alcohol, but at sixteen how many of us actually listened to our parents?

    People do ill advised things with unintended consequences all the time and we can't go around banning activities for the rest of us based on what a few people do.

  7. @Lats, Duncan: I agree completely. It's ridiculous to set policy based on the latest outrage, regardless of whether the policy would have affected that particular case, but even more so if it wouldn't have helped.

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  9. In response to the update, disclosure of consumption of illegal drugs (and other illegal behaviour) is already confidential and privileged in New Zealand. So a law change wouldn't be necessary to bring that about.

    It's worth noting though, that distressingly few people are aware of this. People ought to be upfront to their GP if they use marijuana (or whatever) recreationally because of potential interactions with other drugs. But because noone knows that it's a big ol' secret the Police aren't allowed to find out, and they couldn't use in Court even if they did, it makes sense to play it safe.

    This is exacerbated by the fact such a privilege doesn't exist federally in the States, and we watch a lot of American tv and movies. I can see policy reasons for not disclosing the differences, but they are bad reasons. Education in this area would have obvious benefits for national health.

    On a related note, most counsellors are pretty good about telling their clients of how confidentiality works there. But in schools in particular, this should be advertised to everyone, not just those already seeing a counsellor. And seriously, those school counsellors who break their professional obligations ought to be smacked down HARD.

    Finally, where there is the real risk of imminent harm to the client or others (paraphrase), the medical professional/counsellor is allowed to disclose.