Age of dissent
Published:  19 September, 2008

While momentum grows towards making 21 the legal age for buying drinks in the UK, the Americans are debating reducing theirs to 18. As part of this year's Responsible Drinks Retailing campaign, OLN examines both arguments

Police officers, politicians and medics are among the leading figures calling for the minimum age for buying alcohol to be increased to 21. Such a move would

bring the UK in line with the US , they say, but maybe not for long: in the

US there are growing calls for the age requirement to be reduced to 18, as is the case in most of the developed world.

Scotland is leading the UK march towards a legal age of 21, outlining plans for a change in the law - at least as far as it affects the off-trade - in a consultation document published this summer. Under its proposals, pubs would still be allowed to serve 18


olds, creating a two-tier system which trade groups like the Scottish Retail Consortium find bizarre.

England and Wales have accepted 18 as the legal age for buying drinks since 1923. In 1886, the Intoxicating Liquors (Sale to Children) Act banned sales of alcoholic drinks to children under 13. The law remained in force until 1901 when it was repealed - the new Act decided that 14 was a much more acceptable minimum age. Nine years later, on-premises sales of spirits to under-16s were outlawed.

As the UK embarked on its national debate into problem drinking and responsible retailing, it was

to be expected that

hysterical voices on the fringes would demand an increase in the minimum purchasing age. But some respectable public figures have joined the chorus.

Last year, Public Policy Research, the journal of the IPPR think-tank , said Britain had "lost the plot" in the way alcohol is regulated, and prescribed some "tough love" by considering making the legal drinking age 21.

Soon afterwards Cheshire chief constable Peter Fahy said the same thing, claiming that raising the limit would send "a clear message about the dangers" of alcohol. His counterpart in Northumbria, Michael Craik, agreed that a ban on drinking in clubs and bars for those under 21 would reduce the number of alcohol-fuelled assaults and rapes which threatened to overwhelm the police.

Croydon has embarked on a voluntary ban on off-trade sales of alcohol to under-21s, a move

described by London mayor Boris Johnson as "very interesting".

So where does the general public stand on the issue? Fairly evenly divided, if an opinion poll for BBC Newsnight is to be believed. Last December, the ORB survey found that 51% of people favoured increasing the legal drinking age to 21, with 47% opposed to the idea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger respondents were less likely to be in favour of an increase, but even among 18 to 24

year olds, 39% of those questioned thought 21 was a sensible minimum age.

In the USA, most states imposed a minimum age of 21 after Prohibition was repealed, but in the early

seventies 29 states changed their laws to allow

drinks purchases at the ages of 20, 19 or 18. All have since reverted to 21. The American Medical Association has published research into the effects of different age restrictions, and concluded that 21 is a safer limit than 18.

"A higher minimum legal drinking age

is effective in preventing alcohol-related deaths and injuries among youths," it asserts. "When the MLDA has been lowered, injury and death rates increase, and when the MLDA is increased, death and injury rates decline.

"A higher MLDA results in fewer alcohol-related problems among youths, and the 21-year-old MLDA saves the lives of well over 1,000 youths each year.

When the MLDA is lowered, motor vehicle crashes and deaths among youths increase.

"A common argument

is that because many minors still drink and purchase alcohol, the policy doesn't work. The evidence shows, however, that although many youths still consume alcohol, they drink less and experience fewer alcohol-related injuries and deaths.

"Research shows that when the MLDA is 21, people under

21 drink less

and continue to do so

in their early twenties."

Yet in August this year, 100 American college presidents banded together

as the Amethyst Initiative and

call ed for a debate on whether the MLDA should be lowered from 21 to 18. "Our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that 21 is not working," their statement reads. "A culture of dangerous


has developed.

"Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioural change among our students.

"Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting,

serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer."

Perhaps these American academics have some lessons to teach the UK.

Worlds apart

Around the world, 18 is the most common minimum legal age for the purchase of alcohol (there are many variations , which can alter depending on the strength of the liquor and the environment in which it is consumed). Some notable exceptions are listed below:


16 (18 for spirits)




16 (in shops , 18 in bars)


16 (18 for strong liquor

consumed on-premise)


16 (18 for spirits)








16 (for 15% abv and

below, 18 for above 15%)





Health risks for children

According to statistics from the National Treatment Agency published last year, the number of under-18s in alcohol treatment programmes has risen by 40 %, from 4,781 in 2006 to 6,707 in 2007. The number of children aged 16 or under who were taken to hospital as a result of drinking has risen by a third in the past decade - from 3,870 in 1995-6 to 5,281 in 2005-6.

The dangers of drinking in childhood and adolescence were recently spelled out by Ronald M Davis, president of the American Medical Association, who said the risks went beyond the potentially fatal problems of high blood pressure and liver cirrhosis.

"A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that even modest alcohol consumption in late childhood and adolescence results in brain damage - possibly permanent," he said. "Young alcohol users are at risk of damaging two key areas of the brain

"The first area is the hippocampus, which manages

learning and memory .

Childhood drinking has an alarming effect on this . In one study, the hippocampuses of teens who abused alcohol were 10% smaller than in teens who did not .

"Another study showed that individuals who used alcohol as adolescents exhibit a reduced ability to learn,

compared to those who refrained from using alcohol until adulthood.

"The second area most affected by alcohol abuse is the prefrontal area, which undergoes the most change during adolescence. This area plays an important role in the formation of adult personality and behaviour. Alcohol abuse has been shown to cause deterioration in this important area.

"Given these effects, is it any wonder that adolescent drinkers score worse than non-users on vocabulary, general information, memory, and memory retrieval tests?

Or that they perform worse in school and are more likely to fall behind in their work than their temperate peers? Or that they are at greater risk of social problems, depression, unintentional injuries, suicide

and violence?" 

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