Drinking age must be raised to 19

19 November 2009

Really smart countries now have a national agenda to maximise not just the "mental health" of their citizens but also their collective "mental wealth". To achieve that aim, we need to look at the best ways to help young people reach their full cognitive and behavioural capacities. In that respect, national health, education and social policies should be informed by modern science.

New research in neuroscience tells us that the brain continues to develop right through the late teenage and early adult period. In fact, particularly in young men it may not reach adult maturity till the mid 20s. It is the frontal part of the brain that regulates complex decision making, forward planning and inhibition of impulsive behaviours that is undergoing final development at this age.

One of the most toxic things that a young brain can encounter is a high level of blood alcohol. The evidence from animal models of teenage intoxication, and recent brain imaging studies among teenagers who binge drink, is clear. Longer-lasting brain changes and related neuropsychological impairments can result from excessive use of alcohol during this critical period.

As we enter the annual national madness of 'schoolies' week, its time we really took some harder choices about the regulation of access to alcohol among young Australians. The current legal age of 18 runs across a whole series of other major life changes. Finishing school, starting university, learning to drive, getting a first job, entering a first sexual relationship are all major rites of passage. Sadly, in our country we have now made them largely rites of intoxication.

The health and social risks of linking binge drinking to each of these major developmental stages is obvious. National media focus over the next few weeks will again put the issue on the national agenda. The Prime Minister and the Health Minister are out touring the country and asking for serious health reform proposals, particularly in the areas of preventative and youth health.

While the evidence related to the benefits that could be derived from lifting the drinking age are clear, to date, there has been little political stomach for the task. It is clear to those of us in health and social policy that simply lifting the age to 19 would break the current impasse and deliver immediate benefits. The benefits would be most direct for those in their last year of school or their first year of university or employment. However, the benefits would also extend to a younger group since there is a clear relationship between the legal drinking age and first use of alcohol.

Given that the Prime Minister meets with all the Premiers on 7 December to discuss health reform, our national government has an ideal opportunity to put a simple clear proposal on the national agenda. Rather than focusing on more advertising, education and marketing, lets do something that will have real impact. Lift the age to 19 and make a real difference now.

Ian Hickie is Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney.

Contact: Jacob O'Shaughnessy

Phone: 02 9351 4312 or 0421 617 861

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