Are teenagers right to call for a lower drinking age?
Almost half of South Africa’s teenagers would like to lower the legal drinking age below 18, but is there a case for it?
Teen alcohol (Shutterstock)
According to a new survey, 43% of 15 to 17 year olds think it is “appropriate” for people under 18 to drink alcohol.

On the flip side, the survey also found that about half of young people feel underage drinking is a problem. 

How widespread is underage drinking in SA?

Six out of 10 under 18’s in South Africa regularly consume alcohol, according to a 2012 report by the Bureau for Market Research (BMR).

The report found that teens spent an average of R173 a month on booze, with 60% of them agreeing that consuming alcohol was becoming more “socially acceptable and tolerated”.

Despite this, only two out of 10 teens said their parents drank regularly.

The average age for starting to consume alcohol is around 13-14 years for both genders, with 72% of Grade 11s and 78% of Grade 12s claiming they have been drunk before.

Across all grades, 40% admitted to being binge drinkers - drinking five or more drinks within a few hours, at least once a month.

Why do underage teens drink alcohol at all?

Teenagers might not consider underage drinking a serious offence, but they are breaking the law. So why do they do it? According to the South African Medical Journal, teens drink due to peer pressure, boredom, poor home environments and sheer ignorance of the harms of alcohol. 

Plus alcohol is relatively cheap and easy to access.  The SAMJ said: “In SA, alcohol is easily purchased from bottle stores, supermarkets, bars and shebeens and other unlicensed liquor outlets, which outnumber licensed ones, particularly in disadvantaged communities.”

That said, alcohol abuse is not the most popular drug among learners - according to the BMR the most common illicit drug used among teens is dagga, or cannabis.

Indeed, latest figures show that of all people aged under 20s treated for drug abuse, cannabis is a far bigger problem.

For example, of all those treated in Cape Town between January and June 2013, 70% were cannabis abusers and just 3% were treated for alcohol abuse, a report from the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU) shows. 

Does the rest of the country support lowering the age?

No. In fact, a survey by the Medical Research Council found that the majority of South Africans think that legal age should be increased to 21. 

Two thirds of those surveyed thought that hiking the legal age up to 21 would cut both alcohol abuse and underage drinking. Most of them also believed that drunk driving, violent behaviour and domestic abuse could be reduced if the legal age was increased.

In a separate News24 poll this week, when asked if the legal drinking age should be lowered, 32% of our readers said no.

Just 7% said the age should be lowered, while the vast majority, at 61%, said the legal age should be raised.

What happens in other countries?

The overwhelming majority of teenagers across the globe have to wait until they are 18 to legally buy an alcoholic drink. Some teens have to wait even longer - with 13 countries, including the US, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia, setting the minimum legal age limit at 20 or 21.

But there are seven countries that don’t have any age limit at all in place, these are: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Comoros, Greece, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands.

And there are a dozen countries where the minimum legal age limit is 16 or 17, according to the International Centre for Alcohol Policies (ICAP).

But, there’s a caveat. In most of these countries, including Germany, Portugal and Switzerland, teenagers still can’t buy spirits until they are 18 - and are only allowed to purchase beer or wine.

Why bother with an age limit at all?

Children, adolescents and the elderly are “typically more vulnerable” to alcohol-related harm from a given volume of booze than other age groups, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Physiologically, young people’s brains are still developing - which means they are more likely to impair their memory, neural pathways or other physiological functions by using alcohol.

There’s also evidence that drinking early - before 14 years of age - is associated with increased risk for alcohol dependence and abuse at later stages, according to WHO.

So if old people are vulnerable, why not ban them too?

The elderly are vulnerable but for different reasons - older drinkers usually drink less, and less often than other age groups. They are at risk, because their bodies can’t handle the same levels of drinking they once did, so they are more likely to suffer from unintentional injuries, such as falls.

With young people, part of the risk is due to the fact that typically, they don’t drink all the time but binge during heaving drinking episodes. WHO said: “Also, young people appear to be less risk-averse and may engage in more reckless behaviour while drunk”. 

Distinguishing between the old and the young, ICAP said: “Young people lack experience with drinking and with knowing their limit.”

Are there any positive factors about young people drinking?

Some positive impacts of young people drinking were identified by a UK government study, the Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People

But it made it clear that the positives were only related to “being able to drink sensibly”. 

For example, it was found to increase young people’s feelings of sociability and of confidence communicating with the opposite sex. The study also found that drinking alcohol as a means of celebrating and on special occasions “may also be positive for young people”. 

However, the study said that the “modest number of positive impacts” were outweighed by the “considerable” number of negative consequences of alcohol misuse.

On balance then, it concluded: “Overall, it seems that delaying the age of alcohol initiation and limiting the amount drunk by young people is likely to enhance their health and well-being”.

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