A group of Australian doctors and academics has called on the Commonwealth government today to raise the legal drinking age to 21, in order to reduce the harms associated with early heavy drinking. According to one recent report, almost two-thirds (63%) of drinkers aged 18 to 24 years say they drink alcohol to get drunk and one third (35%) report not being able to stop drinking once they’d started. Worryingly, more than a third (39%) are unable to remember what happened the night of a big drinking session. We know that regulating access to alcohol significantly influences the risk of harm – recognition of this has underpinned Australia’s liquor licensing laws that prevent under 18s from purchasing or consuming alcohol on licensed premises. But while there is strong evidence to support an increase in the legal drinking age, this is yet to translate to community support for such a change. Harms of alcohol on young people Young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of heavy drinking. The harms include an increased risk of traffic accidents, injuries from violence and, some studies suggest, suicide. In Australia we have seen increasing rates of alcohol use cause hospitalisations among young Australians. Evidence has also emerged over the past couple of years about the impact of alcohol on the developing brains of young people. These studies identify physical changes in the brain and evidence of impaired problem solving and other cognitive functioning. This, in turn, might influence the ability of the child to reach their full educational capacity. A natural experiment Quality research from the United States, New Zealand and Australia provides compelling evidence that if we increase the legal purchase age for alcohol, we will reduce alcohol-related problems among young people. This evidence arises from changes in the 1970s and 1980s when many US and Australian states reduced their minimum legal purchase age to 18. More recently, New Zealand also reduced the minimum age from 20 to 18.
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