Injury increase linked to lower drinking age

Lowering the drinking age has resulted in more young men being hospitalised with assault injuries, University of Otago research has found.

Lead researcher Kypros Kypri said the research was more evidence that Parliament failed New Zealanders when it bungled a vote in 2012 on raising the alcohol purchasing age.

He believed raising the drinking age should be looked at again and any movement would have a greater impact on Dunedin than elsewhere, because of the proportion of young people in the city.

''You would expect that anything that affects alcohol consumption among young people will be especially effective in Dunedin because of that.''

The study, published in theAmerican Journal of Public Health, looked at patients admitted to New Zealand hospitals with assault injuries on weekends four years before, and up to 12 years after, the alcohol purchasing age was reduced to 18 in 1999.

It found the rate of increase for hospital admissions due to assaults was a fifth higher for 18- and 19-year-old men and a quarter higher for 15- to 17-year-old males than 20- and 21-year-old men, who were unaffected by the change.

Previous studies had shown reducing the purchasing age had resulted in increased traffic injuries, but no other study had looked at assaults.

''There had been no such studies of the effects on assault which is an increasingly important problem in New Zealand and other countries that have liberalised access to alcohol among young people.''

While there were straightforward ways to reduce alcohol-related traffic injuries - such as changing blood-alcohol rules - evidence suggested it was more difficult to reduce the number of alcohol-related assaults.

Restricting the availability and promotion of alcohol were two key ways to reduce the numbers of alcohol-related assaults.

Among females, the differences between the three age groups over time were not statistically significant. Report co-author Jennie Connor said there was ''insufficient statistical power to properly examine the effect of the law change on females''.

''This is partly because the assault rate is so much lower among females than males, but it is also likely that the dynamics of assault are quite different when females are injured.

''While girls and young women are drinking more than ever, they still account for only one in five or six assault hospitalisations.

''Assault remains predominantly a problem affecting young men and is likely to be contributing to the gender gap in health.''


Obvious solution is a spilt age system

Of course the rate of alcohol related assaults has increased. That's to be expected - 18-19 years olds are not magically immune to the negative aspects of alcohol. No one expects that they should be.  So naturally the increase in such behaviours will go up when alcohol is legalised for any age group. It would only be news if they didn’t tend towards the general population rates. 

The important question is whether the alcohol related assault rates for 18-19 are worse than those for 20-21 year olds. That would show if legal access to alcohol was having a disproportional effect on 18-19s – which might be a good reason to consider lifting the drinking age. 

However, (based on the findings reported here) this study appears to have overlooked this comparison, meaning it does not show that the stats are any worse for 18-19s. Hence I can not see any logic for Kypri’s conclusion to lift the on-licence drinking age. 

What is concerning is the increase in the under-18 year olds assault rate. I agree with Kypri that lowering the off-licence age was probably a mistake. Lowering the age of off-licence sales age has had a flow on effect from 18-19 year olds supplying younger friends and associates with alcohol. This was predictable and indeed a failure of the reforms.

Further, those reforms missed the opportunity to address the problem of simply assuming an arbitrary one-size-fits-all age for responsibility - It’s not like anyone turns 18 (or 20, or whatever age) and is suddenly able to drink responsibility. A probation period in a supervised environment can only be a good thing.  The obvious solution is a spilt age system – 18 years old for drinking in a pub, 20 years old to take it home and drink unsupervised.