One thing history seems to prove time and again is that you can’t legislate morality. Nowhere is this more pertinent than when it comes to alcohol consumption. Just consider the disastrous North American experiment known as prohibition.
Canada is a drinking country. On average, converted to pure alcohol, each of us (age 15-plus) drinks 9.77 litres each year. We rank 29th in the world in beer swilling per capita. Most kids have had their first taste by the age of 12 and the majority report regular drinking by the age of 15.
Those stats are not any different than the United States and most of Europe. In fact, the only real difference between countries where drinking is legal, is the age at which we legally allow it.
In Canada, Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and British Columbia already allow consumption of alcohol by some minors (usually 16- and 17-year-olds) in private residences under parental supervision.
In Europe, many countries allow consumption of beer and wine, but not spirits, to people 16 years and older. In the United Kingdom, it is legal for children between the ages of five and 17 to consume alcohol in a private residence with the permission of a parent or guardian. And while drinking age restrictions in nations such as France and Italy exist, enforcement tends to be lax because of cultural acceptance.
In the United States, the drinking age has been 21 since 1984. Outside of Muslim countries where alcohol is illegal, the U.S. has the most restrictive laws in the world.
Now Saskatchewan is toying with the idea of reducing its legal drinking age from 19 to 18 and it is, of course, controversial.
These days, it is popular to invoke science in such controversies and, true to form, one of the first arguments against lowering the age to hit the table after the Saskatchewan Party passed its resolution to examine the issue, was a scientific one.
Some neurological studies suggest alcohol consumption interferes with the development of the frontal lobe of the brain. The frontal lobe is responsible for high-level functions such as decision-making and delayed gratification. Neuroscientists believe this part of the brain is not fully developed until around the age of 25.
That is a great argument for why youth should not drink excessively, but it is not a good argument for why we should set the legal minimum high.
Why anyone would think, after examining the evidence, there is anything to be gained from setting any legal age, is mind-boggling to me.
Anecdotally, there is the old adage that a taboo in itself makes the activity all the more attractive to youth. I am never convinced, nor should anyone else be, on anecdotal evidence alone. There are very good reasons, however, to believe the taboo hypothesis is true.
Take, for example a recent study that compared Canadian and American university and college students. As it turns out, more Canadian students drink, but American students who drink, drink much more. In other words, Canadians, who can drink legally, are more responsible with alcohol than their American counterparts who can’t
Which is a bigger problem?
Also, there have been myriad studies in the U.S. comparing drinking behaviour before and after age restrictions were raised that indicate there has been no positive effect on underage drinking or later alcohol abuse. In fact, some studies have actually shown a detrimental effect. One such study in Massachusetts showed an increase in alcohol-related vehicle fatalities after the drinking age was raised in that state.
A review of historical documents from the era of Prohibition indicates a massive problem with youth drinking developed that did not exist before the ban.
Finally, statistics generally support the argument that the more lenient drinking laws are, the more responsible young people are with alcohol and the fewer alcohol-related problems people have later in life. Britain, France and Italy—in fact, most western European countries—all have rates of alcoholism much lower than North America.
Of course, there are outliers. For example, Russia, where there is no drinking age, has one of the highest alcoholism rates in the world. But even that, it seems to me, points to something else at work other than legalities.
The bottom line is, problems associated with alcohol use are not scientific or legal issues. They are cultural, social and health issues. Kids are going to drink whether it is legal or not. The sooner we start focussing on that instead of when people have the legal right to drink, the better off we will be.