This my response to the Scottish government's consultation on raising the age of alcoholic purchases for 18-21 year olds (Yes, I pinched quite a bit from an old blog post of mine).
Dear Madam or Sir,
I wish to strongly object to removing the legal right of 18-21 year-olds to purchase alcohol in supermarkets and off-licenses, as I believe that such legislation is discriminatory and unjustified. Legislation of this nature is a restriction on the legal rights of adults, and as such, could fall foul of age discrimination legislation. I believe that it is unjustified as, despite claims to the contrary, there is little statistical justification to single out 18-21 year-olds.
The justification for this legislation appears to be a ‘significant public concern’ that young people drink too much and that alcohol misuse is higher in this age group than other age groups, as suggested by attendances at Accident and Emergency, levels of drink-driving and assaults. While ‘significant public concern’ surrounds the issue of young people drinking, this alone cannot be used as the basis of legislation. Public concern is a notoriously problematic judge of social problems and often has no basis in fact. The public has continously been concerned with the behaviour of young people for the past three-hundred years and yet most of that concern is hyperbole and reflects poorly on ‘reality’.
There is also no real statistical evidence that the 18-21 age group are the major cause of alcohol related problems. As far as I know, there are no studies that exclusively look at the behaviour of this age group and show a different pattern of behaviour from those of people aged under 30. The statistics used for the government’s consultation back this up. The report says that drink-driving accidents are highest among young people, yet the 2005 police road casualties report shows that 25% of drivers and passengers, aged 16-19, killed while driving were drunk, compared to 33% of those aged 20-29 and 33% of those aged 30-39. Why pick out the 18-21 age group for particular punishment, when if anything they are better behaved? Similarly, while 65% of drunken assaults were amongst those aged under thirty, the average age of an assailant was 25 for men and 26 for women. Singling out 18-21 year olds seems rather arbitrary. The vast majority of 18-21 year olds do not binge drink (43% of men aged 16-24 binge drink and 24% of women) and, again, there are no studies that look particularly at the drinking behaviour of 18-21 year olds. If this change in legislation is about health benefits, then, younger people tend to drink more than older people, but, again, I am not aware of any studies that say alcohol consumption peaks between the ages of 18 and 21. Furthermore, as alcohol consumption is related to earnings, it is more likely that alcohol consumption would be higher amongst the 21-24 age group, who have a higher earning capacity. Legislating against the 18-21 age groups seems arbitrary and restricts the rights of adults based on their age. As such, it appears to fall foul of age discrimination legislation. It is a fact that men of all ages drink more than women aged 16-24, yet legislation that restricted the right to drink by gender would be discriminatory. Why would the same not apply to age?
Underage drinking is already a fact of life in Scotland. Raising the age limit, even if just in particular circumstances, criminalises the behaviour of another group of people with no real reduction in behaviour. More problematically, however, is what criminalising the behaviour of a group of adults based on their age says about our society. At a certain point, we grant people in society the rights of adulthood, which include the ability to make choices about their lives, whether or not they are good ones. What age do we want to set adulthood at? There is already considerable social discussion about the ever-increasing boundaries of youth as people put off marriage and family until their early-thirties, allowing them the freedoms of adolescence for longer and longer. Do we want to institutionalise youth into the twenties? The fact is society has a responsibility to protect its young people due to the fact that we restrict their behaviour. It is the pay off we make for not allowing them full human agency. If we raise the age limit for adulthood, we remove full human agency for a larger group of people and thus we change their role in society. We infantilise them and we cannot expect people who are not allowed to be adults in one area of their life to behave like adults in another. Are we willing to take on that responsibility? Furthermore, should we?
If we can agree that, in Scotland, people over fourteen can make legally binding contracts, that people over sixteen can have sex, marry without parental consent, leave school, live in their own homes, be held criminally responsible and tried as an adult, work and pay tax, that people over seventeen can drive, that people over eighteen can smoke and have mortgages, credit card debt and all the other rights and responsibilities of adulthood, then why should there be a separate rule for drinking? Much of the government’s alcohol use reduction strategy is based on education and teaching people to make good choices. Yet, at the same time, the government is removing the ability to exercise that choice. What does that say about the government’s faith in its own strategies and in its young people?
While similar legislation exists in other countries, notably the US, different countries have different legal standards for adulthood. Scotland has set the legal age of adulthood peculiarly young (effectively at 16) and, as such, it has created a culture of responsibility and adulthood from around that age, and certainly by 18. In the US, full adulthood is not granted until 21. In Scandinavia, the picture is similar to Scotland, but generally the age of legal responsibility is higher as is age at marriage. Legislative practice cannot be easily removed from one environment to another, especially when it would grievously infringe upon the rights of a social group that, until that moment, had been full adults.
Drink is a problem amongst all social groups and all age-groups. It is at the heart of our culture. Drink is brought out at all social occasions, whether organised by families, institutions or the state, often with no alternative given. It is given out as a reward or bonuses in the workplace based on an assumption that everybody drinks alcohol. Not drinking alcohol can exclude you from a large part of Scottish social life, and, if drink is calculated at cost, refusing alcohol can be refusing a (sometimes significant) part of your wage. Raising the drinking age pretends that alcohol related problems are about the irresponsibility of youth, while simultaneously reclassifying a group of adults as young people to solve a fictional problem. Our love affair with alcohol is a widespread social problem, institutionalised into our culture, and effecting people at all social levels and in all age-groups. If we want to reduce the harms caused by drinking, we need to change the significance of drinking to Scottish society, not redefine what it means to be an adult. Legislative practice often has much wider social implications than the single issue that it addresses. This sort of legislation is of this nature.
Thank you for your time and consideration,