A leading public health expert has called for Australia’s legal drinking age – currently set at 18 – to be lifted to 21.
His comments were backed up by the lead author of a new study into adolescent drinking, which found parents who allow their children to drink small amounts of alcohol are likely failing to encourage responsible drinking habits.
When commenting on the University of New South Wales study, Deakin University’s Professor John Toumbourou said the results raised questions about Australia’s legal drinking age of 18.
“If we were to follow the example of the United States … we would reduce alcohol problems and deaths by at least 10 per cent or more,” Prof Toumbourou said.
“From a public health point of view it should be raised to 21 or higher.”
The University of New South Wales study, published in the Paediatrics journal in March, found by age 13 up to 60 per cent of adolescents had consumed a sip or taste of alcohol.
The study’s lead author, Kirby Institute researcher Dr Monika Wadolowski, said peer pressure, rule-breaking and aggressive behaviour were more likely to lead to risky consumption.
“Preliminary findings suggest … the grade seven students [surveyed] who were supplied a sip of alcohol by their parents, those students were no more likely to continue just having a sip or go on to drinking alcohol in grade eight,” Dr Wadolowski told The New Daily.
“It was the other factors that seemed to preclude whether they went on to drink.”
But even a small sip could set young people up to consume excessively later in life, Professor John Toumbourou told The New Daily.
Alcohol consumption early on was “priming the brain” for later years.
“You are not helping them at all by teaching them to use alcohol at a young age,” he said.
“Alcohol is habit forming, they might struggle with that first sip of alcohol, but the second time they can do that easily, and then they are finding a glass is in reach. And the challenge goes on.”
There were two parts of the growing brain primarily affected by drinking – the hippocampus and pre-frontal lobe.
The first was responsible for memory and learning, while the latter directed planning, judgement, decision making, impulse control and language.
Studies showed the hippocampus could decrease about 10 per cent in size in long-term, heavy drinking teens. The prefrontal lobe was also found to be smaller in this group.
‘Parents are not jailers’
Parents should set “sensible rules”, have ongoing communication with their children and encourage rational behaviours, Prof Toumbourou said.
“The main thing to remember is the parents’ role is not to be police or jailers, their role is to set sensible rules and have a discussion about them,” he told The New Daily.
“Rebellion is something that happens and we have to be sensible when young people break the rules, it means you go back and have the discussion again and talk about what was learnt.”
He recommended parents look into the national guidelines on alcohol, which advised against alcohol use before 18.
Withdrawing financial support, in turn forcing young people to fund consumption on their own, could be seen as taking a stand without becoming a “jailer”.
Early intervention, before children reached the age they would be exposed to alcohol, was key.