Face it young people, you simply can’t be trusted to make good choices

Karl du Fresne reports in on the drinking age, and his surprise at finding young people are immature.

I?m going to surprise myself in this column by reluctantly conceding that the legal age for the purchase of liquor should be returned to 20.

For decades, I have argued in favour of liberalised liquor laws. And for the most part, I believe I have been proved right.

Thanks to gradual liberalisation, most of the alcohol drunk in New Zealand today is consumed in vastly more civilised conditions than when I began patronising pubs.

Contrary to the dire predictions of the wowser lobby, per capita consumption of alcohol declined from about 1975 onwards, with a particularly significant drop in the 1990s. What?s more, from 1985 onwards the road toll steadily fell.

So why, in 2017, is alcohol such an issue? TVNZ?s Sunday programme last week included an item ? just the latest of many ? showing young women almost literally legless from intoxication.

High-profile political aspirant Gareth Morgan wants the excise tax on alcohol increased and the liquor purchasing age lifted to 20. On talkback radio, callers overwhelmingly backed him.

The public mood appears to have swung back in favour of tighter controls. So where did it all go wrong?

There seems little doubt that the turning point came when Parliament voted in 1999 to lower the liquor purchasing age to 18. That was when per capita alcohol consumption started to rise again. It was also when the phrase ?binge drinking? entered the nation?s vocabulary.

But let?s be clear. In this context, ?binge drinking? means youth drinking. If we have a problem, that?s where it lies, and that?s where any law changes need to be directed.

A majority of parliamentarians believed in 1999 that young New Zealanders could be trusted to drink in a civilised fashion. I did too, but we were wrong.

They were given the opportunity to behave like adults, and they blew it. Spectacularly.

Young women, especially, have let us down. They seem to have adopted the view that equal rights mean the right to render yourself comatose in Courtenay Place ? a perverse distortion of the ?girls can do anything? mantra.

In this they were helped immeasurably by liquor industry entrepreneur Michael Erceg?s promotion of sweet, fizzy RTDs, which made alcohol palatable to a new market segment that didn?t care much for beer or wine.

My wife reckons we can?t blame young people and we shouldn?t expect 18-year-olds to behave like adults. My response is, why not? They expect to be treated like adults in every other respect. Besides, if 18-year-olds in European countries can handle their liquor, why can’t young New Zealanders?

Perhaps they?ve led such protected, molly-coddled lives as children – protected from any behaviour deemed to be risky, even walking to school – that they run amok at their first taste of independence. Perhaps lollipops, rather than alcohol, would be commensurate with their level of maturity.

Whatever the reason, we?ve ended up in a very disheartening place. And if it takes a return to tougher laws to sort the problem out, then perhaps that?s what we must do.

And may I just add, this is the same reason that the New Zealand voting age should not be lowered to 16. ? In fact, it should also be raised to 20.

Making good choices requires life experience, and young people are avoiding the realities of real life much longer than they did before all this liberal cuddling started.

But that’s for another day.


Karl du Fresne