Friday 27 August 2010

Scapegoating The Young For Alcohol's Harm

Have you all got a note from your parents? Eighteen to twenty-year-old New Zealanders are being scapegoated for their society's problems with alcohol - allowing the real culprits to escape the sort of regulation that would make a real difference.

THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE DEBATE on "What should we do about our drinking problem?" one very important issue has been consistently overlooked.

The constitutional, political and moral objections to "down-sizing" the rights of 18 to 20-year-olds.

Though the Age of Majority Act (1970) sets 20 years as the age at which a New Zealander acquires all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, over the course of the past four decades Parliament has effectively lowered the Age of Majority to 18 years.

Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds have the right to vote in local and general elections, perform jury service, join the armed forces, make a will, sign a contract, and purchase alcohol. About the only important thing 18 and 19-year-olds can’t do is marry each other without parental consent.

When it comes to the other rights, responsibilities and duties of citizenship, however, 18 and 19-year-old New Zealanders are legally recognised as responsible adults.

This raises a couple of very serious question. Having admitted 18 and 19-year-olds to the ranks of adult New Zealanders, is it constitutionally, politically and morally justifiable to cast them back into the ranks of non-adults when it comes to purchasing alcohol?

How can prohibiting their participation in a social activity in which all other New Zealand adults are free to engage without legal sanction possibly be right?

I would argue that it is neither right nor justifiable. Once specific political and social rights (like the right to vote or the right to purchase alcohol) have been given to a group of citizens they cannot be taken back without placing the rights of every other citizen in jeopardy.

Were the White Americans living in the Deep South justified in stripping their Black neighbours of their civil and political rights in the latter half of the 19th Century? Did the Nazi Government of Germany have the right to strip German Jews of their citizenship in the 1930s?

Both of these cases involved the persecution of a politically friendless minority whose morals, capabilities and behaviour were openly despised and derided by the majority.

It is surely no accident that the alleged failings of young people loom large in the alcohol debate, or that an aggressive rolling-back of their rights is being advanced as the best means of solving the problem. They, too, constitute a vulnerable minority. They, too, have the dubious historical distinction of being their society’s whipping-boy. They, too, have enormous difficulty in mounting an audible defence.

Never mind the glaring absence of hard statistical evidence suggesting that young people are disproportionately responsible for the problems caused by alcohol. And let’s just forget the fact that alcoholism and the damage it causes New Zealand society is a phenomenon more commonly associated with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

If the Justice Minister, Simon Power, had been guided by the facts he would have been obliged to fashion an alcohol reform package that struck not at the young and the vulnerable but at the rich and the powerful.

Had Mr Power really wanted to "reduce harm" he’d have gone after the Booze Barons, who market "Ready-to-Drink" lolly-water directly to young women in their late teens and early 20s; the advertisers, whose deadly equation "alcohol = fun" leads so many youngsters astray; and the supermarket owners, whose heavily discounted bottles of plonk are used to "loss-lead" their shoppers into the more profitable aisles.

Raising the excise duty, banning alcohol advertising, restricting the number of outlets and lowering the permissible blood-alcohol level for drivers would have produced an immediate and dramatic reduction in the harm alcohol causes.

But a package which stripped businesses of their economic power would only embroil the National-led Government in a politically counter-productive struggle with its own supporters. As a solution, turning young people into scapegoats has so much more to recommend it.

After all, blacks stay black, and Jews remain Jews, but young people eventually turn into old people who, in their turn, can be persuaded to project all the failings of their own generation on to the next.

That’s why making young people the focus of the alcohol debate is so important. Like all campaigns to restrict the rights of a vulnerable minority, its purpose is to hide the much greater harm done to all of us by an invulnerable minority.

The people who profit by it.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star on Friday, 27 August 2010.


Bearhunter said...

Hmm, a couple of points. First, the "Booze Barons" you mention are effectively Independent Liquor only. Their empire was built on RTDs and the measures to reduce the alcohol content will have quite an impact on company that announced a $44 million loss this year. Their private equity company owner won't be happy and will likely flog it off and disappear, so your evil booze barons will get their comeuppance. The RTD selections of the other two main brewers is minuscule.

Something else has also been entirely overlooked in this debate - the wine industry. They have had a free pass from the get-go on this, despite the fact that the majority of drunken women I have encountered have got that way on sauvignon blanc, pinot gris or sparkling wine, rather than RTDs, beer or spirits.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Mr Trotter, all the constitutional academic theory on earth doesn't alter the fact that when the few fuck it up for the many, inevitably the many suffer.

Sorry but that's the way of the real world, whether you're dealing with eighteen year olds or eighty year olds.

Chris Trotter said...

What an extraordinary attitude Mr Fiinkensein.

Presumably, you'd argue that if a few capitalists "fuck it up for the many" then the many are perfectly entitled to make all the other capitalists "suffer"?

Hmmm. You may be on to something there ...

Anonymous said...

I don't think alcohol is something important enough for the right of teenagers to purchase it to outweigh consideration of the harm it does if withholding that right is effective in reducing social ills. STDs are very commonplace among teenagers but nobody sane is suggesting increasing the age of consent because it would be ineffective, unworkable and it is too important of a right.

"About the only important thing 18 and 19-year-olds can’t do is marry each other without parental consent."
It is 16 and 17 year olds who require parental or judicial consent in New Zealand; 18 year olds are free to marry. The law did require 18 and 19 year olds to seek consent in the past.
By contrast, it has long been almost impossible for under-18s to marry in Australia. Australians can't believe New Zealand allows 17 year olds to marry.

"Had Mr Power really wanted to "reduce harm" he’d have gone after the Booze Barons"
I'd argue the biggest booze barons are the supermarkets. Having alcohol heavily marketed by supermarkets and available cheaply alongside fruit and vegetables has probably done more than anything else to promote and normalise its consumption.

peterpeasant said...

Alcohol is a drug with very well understood

The majority of NZ adults indulge in the stuff,
on a regular basis.

Like most NZ adults I did some very silly things involving alcohol between the late teen years and mid twenties (later aberrations do not count).

Most NZers do not participate in a "binge drinking culture".

New Zealand does not have a binge drinking culture. Few of us could afford it if we did.

Most of the media expressed "problems" focus on the idiot antics of young people.

There are many serious social problems caused by older alcoholics.

We have a drug problem.

Banning it will not work.

So where do we go from here?

Anonymous said...

There is a large gap between placing some restrictions on availability and an outright ban. The present law is far from a full liberalisation; there are strict but limited restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Restoring the level of restrictions back to what they were in the 1990s wouldn't invite a moonshine boom because alcohol that originates from legitimate channels would still be far less effort to obtain.