Pitching my idea: Reduce the legal drinking age

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Having finally finished my undergraduate dissertation, I suddenly find myself with a lot of time on my hands, while also being limited for what I’m able to do with that time as a result of the unprecedented circumstances we all currently find ourselves in. We’re also in the middle of our party’s period of reflection, after a disappointing General Election result and before the election of a new leader to take us into a new chapter with new USPs. In other words, there is surely no better time than now to pitch a policy idea that can be included with many others in our new platform.

Like many, I’ve always appreciated the ability of members to formulate policy. In other words, I genuinely enjoy sitting in a conference hall in various seaside towns and voting on policies written by members who have far greater expertise on the issue at hand than I presumably ever will. I don’t claim to have any expertise on public health, other than my own lived experience and observations drawn from the existing research. However, going forward, we’re a party desperately in need of new, unique ideas and if my first Lib Dem voice entry at least gets people to consider the issue then that’ll be a success in my book.

So, my idea is simple: bring legal age limits on alcohol in line with those in Germany, which are as follows;

At Age 14 minors may consume fermented products such as beer and wine, provided they are in the presence of a legal guardian. At Age 16 minors are allowed to purchase and consume the same fermented products, without custodial supervision. At Age 18, Germans have reached adulthood and are able to purchase and consume any alcoholic product.

We’re a country that enjoys alcohol and for the most part, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Our unique pub culture is a celebrated part of our national identity, with pubs being a focal point for many of our local communities and it is something that on a human level, I and many of my friends and family enjoy. I have no intention of giving that up, albeit in moderation, because it is both fun and sociable. I’m not alone in that, with a recent survey revealing that over half of UK adults choose to spend their free time in pubs.

However, you don’t need me to be the one to tell you that alcohol can be a dangerous drink when it is abused, one that kills someone nearly every hour in the UK. Our unfortunate national statistics on alcohol abuse correlate directly with our unhealthy binge drinking culture, one that encourages people to drink to excess and actively seek inebriation.

As usual, the UK lagging behind most of our European neighbours on this issue is a result of the belief that existing laws are a realistic reflection of behaviour. The idea UK minors are somehow just going to wait patiently until their 18th birthday when they can go to a pub and have their first drink that isn’t orange juice is mere fantasy.

I speak from experience, I grew up in the UAE where even today I don’t meet the legal age limit of 21 and where the penalty for defying said age limit was much harsher and even so, myself and my friends would often obtain alcohol and drink it to excess. We were teenagers. Teenagers experiment with things, especially when that thing is made out to be such a forbidden fruit by the state.

Frankly, it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that it is much safer for teenagers to be able to experiment with alcohol, which they always will do, in controlled environments such as pubs and restaurants rather than in venues hidden from the public that carry a myriad of risks. Not to mention the German model of gradually allowing minors to access alcohol removes the forbidden fruit element that encourages binge drinking in the first place.


* George Rice was the Lib Dem PPC for Ashton-under-Lyne at the last General Election

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  • Cllr Mark Wright 8th May '20 - 7:55pm

    Well thankyou for an unexpected and thoughtful post. It’s good to see some blue-sky thinking on this site for a change.

    I agree with your premise that UK kids need to get a better understanding of alcohol, but disagree with your way to do it. The reason is that British drinking culture is Scandinavian in outlook, not continental. German bars and kellers are not like ours, they don’t seem to have the kind of law of the jungle and violence that we do. The Scandinavian nations have tried to tame their binge drinking culture with crazy high taxes and sales restrictions, and as a result kids drink moonshine. We just haven’t bothered taming at all.

    If we want to emulate the continental way, the way to do it is not to inject children into the bear-pit of pub drinking culture earlier, it’s to do what the continentals do, which is to introduce them to drinking *at home* from an earlier age; whether with meals or just in the evening.

  • As with many things, I think one of the Uk’s problems is that we often don’t address the root causes of problems.

    I agree that alcohol shouldn’t be some forbidden temptation, but a combination if advertising, prohibition and other things often make it seem like that. It needs to be demystified.

    Also, what are the root causes of this ‘binge’ culture and how can it be changed? For example, is there a way to make it embarrassing for people to be seen to be completely ‘off your face’ drunk? Can we change the culture so that those who are drinking to obliterate boredom or personal problems can easily find other outlets?

  • David Chadwick 8th May '20 - 9:12pm

    Good article! If we support voting at 16 then why not (limited) drinking at 16.

  • And to think the Liberals were part of the Temperance movement. Yes eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

  • While I’m sympathetic to the aims of this article, what needs to change for the British is the culture, not the law. The good news is that young people are turning away from alcohol – https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/young-people-turning-their-backs-alcohol/

    As long as that continues I’d leave well alone to be honest…..

  • Sheer lunacy!
    At 18 there are enough problem drinkers; let alone at 16.. Currently 16 year olds can dress up and get into bars; what happens when 14 year olds pass asr 16? (As this party is against ID’s you’ll have to rely on the ‘discretion’ of bars).

    BTW… Where will the 16 year olds get the money? Alcohol isn’t cheap?,

  • John Marriott 9th May '20 - 9:25am

    So, consuming large quantities of alcohol is an OK idea? So, if it’s so safe, why not let us consume large quantities of nicotine and any other drug that takes our fancy! I wonder whether Mr Rice will be advocating such ideas the next time he stands for parliament.

    As someone, who has always seen the hypocrisy of profiting from pushing what are legalised drugs down our throats and into our lungs in the name of enjoyment and ‘hospitality’, while failing to tackle the position of so called illegal drugs, the idea of reducing the legal drinking age might seem liberal, and might appeal to a certain libertine section of society; but we are already seeing the effects of our nation’s love of alcohol in illnesses that were previously found mainly amongst the elderly now visiting those in their thirties and even younger. We have generally seen the light regarding the link between smoking and diseases like lung cancer and arterial sclerosis; but seem incapable grasping the nettle with alcohol. I call that hypocrisy.

    I enjoy a drink in moderation – I’m of that age. I even allowed my children the occasional sip when they were under the legal age. Making something totally taboo is not the answer – look what happened when the USA went down the prohibition route. As Nick Baird has said, it would be better to leave things as they are at the moment. Now, if we were to be brave about the decriminalisation of the narcotics by campaigning for something like a Royal Commission on ALL drug use, including nicotine and alcohol, we might be able to claim the title of liberal.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th May '20 - 10:02am

    @Nick Baird
    “The good news is that young people are turning away from alcohol”

    So what are they using instead? All sorts of substances for which there is absolutely no guarantee of quality, safety etc.?

    I’m all in favour of people not drinking more than they can reasonably handle – and certainly not at all if they are going to drive, operate machinery, take important decisions etc. Learning to do this in a controlled environment – during a meal with parents, maybe with parental permission drinking a small amount in the local pub etc. might be a good thing.

    And if along the way they pick up the ‘caveat emptor’ message about the risks associated with buying other mind-altering substances where there is no guarantee at all of how much might be consumed safely so much the better.

  • @Nonconformistradical – according to the data, there hasn’t been a matching rise in drug use. Perhaps young people these are simply more sensible?

  • http://www.alcoholeducationtrust.org/ 01300 320869
    Alcohol – facts & figures, and long term effects. on health. as well as causing short.

    Highlights: Newsletter Available, National Charity.

    Nuff said.

  • David Evans 9th May '20 - 1:15pm

    George – You say “I’m not alone in that, with a recent survey revealing that over half of UK adults choose to spend their free time in pubs.”

    Sorry George – I suggest you research harder before you post. Do you really believe it?

    A quick check shows that the survey interviewed 2,000 *drinkers*. A bit of a skewed sample if you use it to estimate the proportion of the general population that spend their time in pubs. 🙂

  • George Rice 9th May '20 - 1:57pm

    I hadn’t realised Nordic countries faced such similar problems with binge drinking @CllrMarkWright, especially with regards to teenagers drinking moonshine, which is as good an argument as any against sin tax’s. Totally agree that a reduction in the drinking age would work best if moderate alcohol consumption was introduced at home. I hear children in France are given watered down wine with meals at home from as young as 8. Enjoyed reading your own article on the subject @JonathanCalder. Especially your experience of pubs actually ending up being boring places for late teenagers to be. Similar to how you’d rarely find a local in an Amsterdam coffee shop as they don’t see the appeal.

  • John Marriott 9th May '20 - 3:25pm

    In the summer of 1966, just after the euphoria of England’s World Cup victory and before I embarked on a teaching career (first monthly salary £58 after deductions!) I was part of a small party that journeyed in a Renault 4L to Bergen in Norway, via Gothenburg and Oslo to work at a small summer camp. Whenever we stopped for refreshment I vividly remember playing the equivalent of around £1 for a bottle of beer, at a time when, back home, £1 would buy you four gallons of petrol and you could have a good night out for ten bob (50p to the uninitiated). A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine and his wife celebrated their Silver Wedding in Oslo with a Norwegian couple and the total bill, including drinks, was around the equivalent of £500.

    If the Nordics can afford to binge drink they must have one hell of a lot more disposable income than we do! On the other hand, it might show that putting up and maintaining high prices for alcohol isn’t really the answer. Mind you, it does raise a great deal of money for their countries exchequers, hence the dilemma.

  • George Rice 9th May '20 - 4:38pm

    @John Marriott i’m afraid I can’t relate to the euphoria of an England, given i’m from the generation whose lasting memory of England is them failing to qualify for Euro 2008. However, i’m also about to embark on a teaching career, but the first training year is unpaid so I won’t be earning enough for Norweigan beer anytime soon.

  • I’m sure that many of us here can remember a time when the licencing laws were not really enforced and it was pretty easy for a 16 or 17 year old to spend an evening down the pub, in fact underage drinking was the norm. Just about everyone behaved themselves, no one that I knew became a problem drinker.
    Perhaps the answer is for the police and other agencies to decide that they have better things to do with their time. I am slightly perturbed by the tendency towards paternalism shown on a supposedly liberal site.

  • I don’t see that much real difference between the German age limits and the UK limits.
    But then I grew up under the culture that Chris Cory describes, under this whilst a blind was often turned, it came with some responsibility ie. everyone had a good idea who the underage drinkers were and so, if you wanted to enjoy the privilege of sitting in a pub with your beer and mates you behaved or got told in no uncertain terms to get out.

  • Mark Morris 10th May '20 - 1:14pm

    I am surprised this article doesn’t state what the current law actually is.

    I believe for the whole of the UK – if you’re 16 or 17 and accompanied by an adult, you can drink (but not buy) beer, wine or cider with a meal on licensed premises. (apologies if any differences apply in Scotland that I am not aware aware of).


    Perhaps most surprisingly, within a household, it is only illegal to give alcohol to children under 5. That is not a typo.

    Personally I can remember the mid-1980s when the law of being at least 18 to purchase alcohol in pubs was widely ignored by many bar staff.

    I certainly was served beer in a number of pubs when 17 (and I was probably quite a young looking 17 year old), and many peope I knew started being served when 16 or even 15 years old.

    It was in many respects a stranger time with the law also being very strict on the hours that pubs could open – with no Spoons serving from 10.00am, let alone pubs bieng opened in the afternoon or legally later than 11.00 pm.

    Yes, pubs by law, really did have to close every afternoon!

    Was it really such a great time? I am not quite sure.

    A lot of pubs (until at least six weeks ago!) seem far more family friendly than was the case 30 or 40 years ago, especially since the ban on smoking. The growth in pubs serving food has also been a huge change in the 30 or 40 years.

    If we are going to have a debate on young people and drinking, lets ensure we start with the facts – and perhaps not get too misty eyed about the past.

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