KATHERINE ATKINSON
On 29 September, the National Liquor Amendment Bill was issued. The bill proposes that the legal drinking age should be raised from 18 to 21. The bill is open to public comment for 45 days from the date of issue. It proposes that distributors will be held legally liable should they serve alcohol to someone under the legal drinking age. Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies’s major reasoning behind the age raise is the damaging physiological effects alcohol has on the adolescent brain and the high number of alcohol-related car accidents South Africa experiences per year. Davies said during a media briefing that one “can see that [alcohol abuse] is a significant problem in South Africa”, with the average South African consuming between 3.8 to 6.2 litres more alcohol per year than the global norm. This extreme alcohol consumption is especially concerning for persons younger than 21, as the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. Furthermore, Davies said that 46% of non-natural fatalities and more than 40% of injuries are associated with people who have a higher amount of alcohol in their body than the legal amount for driving.

Although the alcohol trade is one of the major contributors to South Africa’s GDP, Davies further said that alcohol-related health concerns, such as foetal alcohol syndrome, outweigh the benefits of the alcohol trade. The amendment includes implementing stricter rules for advertising, stating that advertisements must show the risk associated with alcohol consumption, as is done for cigarettes.

However, a person must ask if raising the legal drinking age will really help tackle the alcohol-related issues that our nation faces. While an eNCA Twitter poll shows that 64% of the voters believe that the age limit should be raised, some argue against this. The latter argue that a raise in the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) will not only be more difficult and costly to monitor, but will also increase incidences of illegal binge drinking. In South Africa, many teenagers who are below the age limit of 18 still consume alcohol. This raises questions as to whether the current age limit should be more stringently enforced rather than raised. Furthermore, some suggest that it is contradictory to believe that an 18-year-old is responsible enough to work, drive, marry and vote, but not to drink.

In an article published on The New York Times website on 10 February titled “Lower the Drinking Age to 19”, Laurence Steinberg, an American professor of psychology and researcher of the adolescent brain at Temple University says that he is in favour of lowering the drinking age in the US from 21 to 19. He says that although America has seen a reduction in drinking-related car accidents, this can also be attributed to the fact that stricter seat-belt regulations were implemented. While there may be truth in Steinberg’s statements, in 2013 the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reported that the alcohol-impaired-driving fatality rate had declined by 23% since 2004, which is still a significant feat. Steinberg further says that lowering the MLDA to 19 will “help solve the problem of illegal drinking on campus […] while still making it illegal for high school students to drink, thereby limiting the flow of legally (and easily) purchased alcohol into younger adolescents’ social networks.” Steinberg’s statements suggest that raising the drinking age to 21 may be futile.

Some students at UP were asked if they feel that the drinking age should be raised. Shayna Smit, a first-year actuarial science student, said, “I don’t think we have the police force to enforce the current age limit, let alone an increased one. It would simply increase the amount of underage and uncontrolled drinking that would happen. They should rather focus on enforcing the current age limit.” Victoria Bertram, a retired mother, said “…to raise the drinking age to 21 is a good idea in theory, however, with the lack of law enforcement in SA it will be futile.”

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