He is only 14 and admits he’s already on the edge of alcoholism”.
That was the opening line on a feature about a young drunk which I wrote for an alcohol awareness week nearly 30 years ago when the purchase age was 20.
The theory behind lowering the age to 18 was that it would reduce the scarcity excitement about drinking and result in a better attitude towards it.
It hasn’t worked and in response to growing public concern it is possible that the law will change again.
Raising the off-licence purchase age for alcohol to 20 while keeping the on-licence age at 18 may do a little to reduce the problem of people who are younger than 18 getting access to alcohol.
But it won’t solve the real problem because it’s addressing a symptom not the cause.
The immature attitude too many have to alcohol and binge drinking is the real problem and changing that requires a change in culture.
We’re not the only country with an alcohol problem. Theodore Dalrymple writes in The Express:
. . .there is little doubt that public drunkenness in Britain now reduces the quality of life of millions of its citizens. Something that is tolerable in a few becomes intolerable and tiresome as a mass phenomenon. . . There is hardly the centre of a town or city in the country in which scenes of drunken debauchery are not enacted at the weekends, imposing a virtual curfew on those who wish neither to participate in nor witness them (and this includes drinkers like me). . .
. . . In many European countries the British are now known mainly for the vileness of their drunken behaviour. They are, in my view justifiably, held in hatred and contempt. . .
People in Britain often describe the night before as having been a really good one, the chief evidence for which is that they drank so much that they can remember nothing about it. But such brutish drunkenness is not a sign of people having enjoyed themselves, it is a sign that they do not know how to enjoy themselves, which is very sad. . .
The column is worth reading in full because it could just as easily have been written about New Zealanders and because Dalrymple has a lesson from history which could help us now.
He makes the point that in the second half of the 19th century drunkenness declined, not because of any action by government but because of public revulsion towards it.
It’s no longer socially acceptable to smoke in enclosed public spaces – and many private ones – nor to drive drunk. There is still a long way to go with both of these but a change in attitude towards both smoking and driving drunk is changing behaviour for the better. It could work for drunkenness and all the problems associated with it too.
Regardless of what changes are made to the purchase age, we won’t have a real improvement until we make it socially unacceptable to binge drink and indulge in other anti-social alcohol-fuelled behaviour.
The law change might address one or two symptoms but it will take public revulsion to change the attitude and thereby address the cause.