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Debate: Lowering of drinking age

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The British and US limits on drinking alcohol do not stop teenagers from consuming alcohol, instead it makes underage drinking cool and so makes teenagers more likely to do it. In Italy, Spain and France the limit is lower, and a culture of having wine at the table from a young age encourages a responsible approach where alcohol is not consumed for its own sake or to excess. With higher alcohol age limits, young people in the UK and US find it harder to get alcohol and so binge-drink when they do. This is not only harmful to them but creates a damaging attitude towards alcohol which continues into their later lives. The British and US limits on drinking alcohol do not stop teenagers from consuming alcohol, instead it makes underage drinking cool and so makes teenagers more likely to do it. In Italy, Spain and France the limit is lower, and a culture of having wine at the table from a young age encourages a responsible approach where alcohol is not consumed for its own sake or to excess. With higher alcohol age limits, young people in the UK and US find it harder to get alcohol and so binge-drink when they do. This is not only harmful to them but creates a damaging attitude towards alcohol which continues into their later lives.

Revision as of 17:00, 23 November 2007

Should the legal age for drinking alcohol be lowered?

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Contents

Background and Context of Debate:

This is a classic debate about the limits the state should place on a something which could harm people. The proposition does not have to argue that drinking alcohol is harmless, as to win the debate they only need to show that the way to encourage limited and responsible alcohol use is to have lower minimum age limits. Current age limits vary across the world. In US states the limit is 21, in most Canadian states it is 19, in the UK it is 18, but in many other European countries it is 16 and alcohol is usually allowed with a meal at any age. The opposition should argue that an age limit of 18 or higher ensures an overall lower level of drinking amongst teenagers and is therefore the more sensible policy.


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Argument #1

Yes

The British and US limits on drinking alcohol do not stop teenagers from consuming alcohol, instead it makes underage drinking cool and so makes teenagers more likely to do it. In Italy, Spain and France the limit is lower, and a culture of having wine at the table from a young age encourages a responsible approach where alcohol is not consumed for its own sake or to excess. With higher alcohol age limits, young people in the UK and US find it harder to get alcohol and so binge-drink when they do. This is not only harmful to them but creates a damaging attitude towards alcohol which continues into their later lives.


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No

Teenagers will always rebel against whatever limits are put on their behaviour. If they are allowed alcohol at 16 instead of 18, some other activity such as soft drug use will quickly replace it in the cool stakes. The myth of a mature continental drinking culture may hold true for a small middle class community, but is not representative of most peoples’ experience. For instance the Spanish government is looking to crack down on massive outdoor drinking parties in major cities organised by teenagers. There is also no reason to think that British adults, many of whom have just as excessive an approach to alcohol consumption as teenagers, will suddenly become better role models if the law is changed to fit this continental image.


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Argument #2

Yes

Studies have shown that limited alcohol consumption (a couple of glasses of red wine per week) can actually have positive health benefits. However this message and those health benefits are lost in a binge drinking culture. Lowering the age limit would be an important step in changing drinking habits and would have long-term health benefits.

No

There are clear harms to young people from drinking too much, made worse by the fact that they have growing bodies. Research published in the Journal of Substance Abuse in 1997 showed that young people in the US who drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than those who begin drinking at 21. This is partly because they become socialised into a heavy drinking culture at an impressionable age, and partly because of the state of their physical development. There is also evidence from the US Center for Disease Control that underage drinkers have higher suicide and homicide rates. When drunk, young people may do things which cause longer term problems, such as having unprotected sex. UK studies show that a third of those who lose their virginity before the age of 15 do so under the influence of alcohol. We should protect young people from these harms by maintaining a high age limit.

Argument #3

Yes

As teenagers are unable to drink legally in pubs or bars, but are old enough to want to socialise on an evening, they are forced to do it secretly on streets and in parks. This often creates a nuisance to the wider public. It also makes it more likely that younger children will be exposed to alcohol and is often one of the causes of teenage crime, vandalism and violence.

No

Even if the drinking age was lowered, there would still be a division in the marketplace because most twenty-somethings do not want to drink or socialise with sixteen year olds. Even with an age limit of 18, chains such as All Bar One have age limits of 21. This suggests that for teenagers at the bottom of the legal age bracket, there might only be a limited number of places they might be allowed to drink in. It is also worth noting that many teenagers buy alcohol cheaply in a supermarket and then drink it in a park because it is less expensive than going to a pub or bar. This would not change with a lower age limit.

Argument #4

Yes

Fundamentally this is an issue of the freedom to choose. Legally we accept that at sixteen an individual is old enough to make rational choices about a whole host of things, from having sex to fighting for their country. We also allow sixteen year olds to harm themselves, if they choose to, by smoking and gambling. If sixteen year olds are thought rational enough to make those choices, there is no reason to deny them the right to choose whether to drink alcohol or not.

No

We do not allow sixteen year olds to do several key things, like vote or drive so clearly there is no set line of where adulthood begins. Drinking is also a larger choice than smoking, because alcohol reduces your ability to make further choices rationally by intoxicating you. Given that if you get drunk you might then do something you regret, surely there should be a high barrier (in the form of a high age limit) before we allow individuals to make that choice.

Argument #5

Yes

Studies show that most people have consumed alcohol in the UK before they reach their 18th birthday, so clearly the law does not work. There is further evidence from the US which suggests increasing the alcohol age limit has no real impact on college students’ alcohol intake. A study at Arizona State University in the late 1980s during the time Arizona increased its minimum age from 19 to 21 showed that only 6% of students reduced their alcohol intake. Perhaps more worryingly 22% of students reported that they intended to take more soft drugs as they would be easier to hide in a college dorm than bottles of alcohol. When laws are ignored it undermines the wider legal system in the eyes of the public. The legal system should reflect the reality of drinking patterns and have a lower minimum age.

No

Although there are underage drinkers in every country, the question is whether the law should encourage them or act as a clear moral standard. It is noticeable that in the US where the limit is 21 fewer 17 year olds have consumed alcohol than in the UK where the limit is 18. Clearly, although some people will always drink underage, a higher age limit leads to underage drinking beginning later. If age limits were enforced more strongly, perhaps by standardised ID cards (such as are being proposed in the UK), this would further reduce underage drinking.

Argument #6

Yes

While adverts for alcopops and beer may make underage drinking seem more attractive, they are not the cause of underage drinking. The European Council in a 1989 directive placed strict limits on how alcohol could be advertised - for instance adverts cannot claim that alcohol leads to sexual success and they cannot criticise non-drinkers. Yet advertising companies were still able to glamorise alcopops in the 1990s. In fact even with a complete ban on tobacco advertising, over 10% of under-16s in the UK still smoke regularly and that figure has hardly fallen since the ban came into place. Drinking alcohol is attractive to young people for much wider reasons than advertising, and the only effective way to regulate it is to reduce the age limit.

No

It has been argued that part of the problem with underage drinking has been created by alcohol companies themselves. They created and have marketed alcopops (alcohol which tastes like a soft drink) since the 1990s. Whether these were deliberately designed for teenagers or not, the fact that they do not taste of alcohol and can be seen as a step-up from fizzy drinks like lemonade has made them attractive to teenagers. There have been greater limits placed on alcohol advertising over the last decade in Britain to stop adverts being targeted at people who are underage. However, further measures, perhaps including a complete ban on alcohol advertising as with tobacco, would help to reduce the cool factor and accessibility of alcopops thereby helping to tackle underage alcohol consumption without weakening the law.

References:

Motions:

  • This house would reduce the UK drinking age to 16
  • This house believes that current drinking laws encourage underage drinking
  • This house would lower the drinking age limit
  • That the present drinking age should be lowered

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

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