Should we raise the drinking age to 21?

March 31, 2008

According to the 2007 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey, students in grades 7 to 12 say it is “really easy” for them to access alcohol. Even though Ontario ‘s drinking age is 19, a significant portion of youth aged 15 and over are drinking excessively. Children who start using alcohol at 11 to 14 years of age are likely to drink heavily as they get older.

Underage drinking is a very serious problem in Canada . Raising the legal drinking age would not deal with its causes. Yet that is exactly what the Middlesex-London health board has proposed. On March 27 it passed a resolution calling on Ontario to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

The health board says some U.S. studies show that country’s legal drinking age of 21 leads to fewer crashes among youth. Despite a drinking age of 21, American statistics for 2005 show 16 percent of drivers ages 16 to 20 who died in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking alcohol. Young men 18 to 20 years of age (who shouldn’t be drinking at all) report driving while impaired more often than any other age group. Minimum drinking age laws are constantly and openly flaunted on college campuses. Even the President’s daughter, Jenna Bush, was caught drinking underage in 2001. In March 2007, the American surgeon general reported there were 11 million underage drinkers in that country, of which 7.2 million were considered binge drinkers, meaning they drank more than five drinks on one occasion.

“It’s hard to see how anyone could cite the American experience as a success,” says Canada Safety Council president Jack Smith. He notes that over the past 10 years alcohol-related fatalities on Canada ‘s roads have dropped about 30 percent. The Americans had a higher fatality rate to start, and have seen practically no change in the number of deaths.

In Canada , the highest numbers of drinking drivers killed in road crashes are in the 20-25 age group, followed by those aged 26-34. “It makes no sense to pick 21 as the magic drinking age,” says Smith. “It is safer for this age group to drink in controlled environments such as pubs than at free-for-all parties held in the bush or private homes.”

Simply making something illegal does not stop the under-21 crowd from doing it.

The Ontario drug use survey looks at students from grades 7 to 12, who are under the legal drinking age. It finds 61 percent report drinking alcohol in the past year and 26 percent report binge drinking at least once in the past four weeks.

Possession of cannabis is not only illegal. It is a criminal offence at any age. In spite of this, the survey found that 26 percent of Ontario high school students had used that substance in the past year.

Smith points out that for novice drivers, a zero permissible alcohol level is already in place across Canada, and that most provinces impose licence suspensions on drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, or 0.05. What is needed, he says, is to address what motivates young people to drink to excess.

“The Canada Safety Council wants to see more programs that address the factors behind the behaviour and create a culture of responsible drinking. They are far more likely to work in the long term than a prohibition style approach.”