Will changing the legal drinking age stop young people from abusing alcohol?

By Marelize Potgieter
04 October 2015

If proposed amendments to the Liquour Act are passed into law, it will be illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to consume or buy alcohol.

More South Africans consume alcohol (10-12 percent of the population) than the world average of 6 percent, Rob Davies, trade and industry minister, has said in a statement.

“We are also the highest with regards to the [occurrence of] foetal alcohol syndrome in the world.”

He says many injuries in South Africa are the result of alcohol consumption and government spends about R3,7 billion a year on problems related to alcohol abuse.

The proposed amendments to the Liquour Act are a result of looking at other countries where alcohol-related problems decreased after the legal drinking age was raised.

There will always be people who don’t obey the law, but the proposed new law would be an important message to the public, says Savera Kalideen, a senior manager at Soul City, the non-profit organisation who kick-started the Phuza Wize campaign against alcohol abuse, amongst others. “It creates public debate and through this can educate people on why we want to increase the drinking age. So people can learn about the health impact [of alcohol on young people].”

Kalideen explains that a young brain is only fully formed by more or less the age of 24. “There’s a link between alcohol consumption and brain volume. This is for example in young people who have four or five binge drinks in a month. Brain cells in 18 parts of the brain are bound to be thinner and weaker and that leads to poor and inefficient communication between brain cells,” she says.

“The area which is affected is a very important area for memory and learning. This has a long-lasting effect and can’t be reversed.

“Secondly the mere fact that there is this proposal will signal to people that there must be something wrong with drinking at a young age – even if they don’t know the details,” she adds.

“Thirdly if we look at the tobacco legislation and the safety-belt legislation there are many that don’t comply with the legislation, but there are millions that do comply with it because they understand that it’s for the own benefit. It might be fashionable to disagree with what people in authority say, but when you see the benefits about why legislation needs to change, you’ll eventually accept it.

Cabinet passed the National Liquour Amendment bill last week. The bill will allow for the legal prosecution of irresponsible producers and suppliers of liquor. It will also ban alcohol advertising near public transport hubs such as train stations.

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