Media release: Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA)

Sorry DTI – evidence does not link violent crime to the legal drinking age

Research undertaken by the Free Market Foundation (FMF) refutes the message from the Department of Trade & Industry that crime and violence are associated with alcohol consumption and, in particular, drinking among 18-21 year olds. The DTI says that they have evidence to support this allegation but have yet to release it. In the proposed National Liquor Policy (NLP) 2015, the government intends to use this “evidence” to increase the minimum legal drinking age to 21 from 18. The FMF has undertaken its own research which shows no such correlation but does point to the real cause being the lack of effective policing and corruption among police officers. Existing laws should be enforced before new ones are enacted which will penalise a particular age group when there is no confirming evidence.

FMF executive director, Leon Louw, said, “The government is saying that 18-21 year olds are intelligent enough to vote for it (government) but too stupid to make their own decisions about their alcohol intake. An 18 year old can legally marry, have children and enter into contracts – but is deemed incapable of handling responsible drinking and will be prevented by law from having a glass of wine with a meal. If they do they will become criminals overnight”.

This law, without any justification, will punish a category of citizens within a certain age group for the actions of all. The statistics show that crime rates, including drunk driving, have been rising since the 1960s and that only a small percentage of young people commit violent crime.

Based on recent research of 149 countries*, the FMF contends that violence, crime and drunk driving are problems of policing and corruption and not the age at which young people start to drink legally. While South Africa’s legal drinking age has not changed, the quality of its police services has.

Murder or homicide is used as a proxy for violent crime as many crimes, such as rape, go unreported in South Africa and other countries. Homicides tend to be reported everywhere, regardless of low conviction rates.

Countries with the lowest homicide rates have no minimum legal age drinking age at all. Those with the highest rates also have higher legal drinking ages. This is a case of smoke and mirrors. Global crime rates are falling. Those determined to “prove their case”, start by showing the higher drinking age then show falling rates of crime.

Most countries with a drinking age of 18, have relatively low murder rates with only a small number having a high rate. If the drinking age was indeed a major factor in crime rates, you would expect a pattern where homicides generally decrease as the legal drinking age is increased. But, as the research shows, that is not the case.

Internationally, nine countries with no minimum drinking age have the lowest average homicide rate, 3.3 per 100,000. Seventeen countries with legal ages below 18 average 5.3. The 109 with our current age of 18 have the highest average, 8.7. The average for the handful of countries South Africa seeks to imitate, is 5.4.

Raising the minimum legal drinking age will merely push under-age binge drinking into less controlled environments and lead to more health and life-endangering behaviour among young people.

The argument that alcohol fuels crime is a red herring. Young drivers and the whole of the alcohol industry are being used as a scapegoat while politicians continue to ignore serious policing problems. The laws to prevent drunk driving already exist. Enforcing those existing laws is the answer, but, again, government is seeking an easy way out and is proposing more legislation and regulation.

According to the SA Automobile Association, “The solution does NOT lie with further regulation, but with enforcement and education”, and government should “redouble its efforts in these areas”.

Government is attacking the wrong cause. Misuse of alcohol should be the target – not alcohol per se. Violence can result from alcohol abuse and misuse – and at any age.

Note: The FMF’s research is available here


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