The adverse social and health consequences of excessive drinking are well known. The battle to tackle anti-social drinking in modern, more affluent societies like ours has to start early if it is to be successful.

Before 2009, the legal age at which children could start drinking in Malta stood at 16 years. Four years ago, it was raised by a year. The Children’s Commissioner, Helen D’Amato, has now proposed that the minimum drinking age should be raised to 18. Her submission to the Justice Reform Commission is being strongly supported by Sedqa, the national agency on drug and alcohol abuse, which daily sees the adverse consequences of excessive drinking.

In support of her contention that the legal minimum drinking age for Maltese children should be raised, the Children’s Commissioner cites evidence showing that alcohol consumption among Maltese youngsters is on the rise.

The latest European Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs, dated 2011, quotes studies pointing to links between alcohol misuse among young people and short- and long-term health risks, the use of illicit substances and poor school performance.

Anybody in Malta wishing to see the daily effects of alcohol misuse among children and youngsters need only stroll down Paceville any summer or winter Friday or Saturday night to do so. In a survey, 56 per cent of Maltese 16-year-olds (the average for the other 36 countries surveyed was 39 per cent) admitted consuming five or more drinks on one occasion in the previous month.

Alcohol tends to inhibit the physical and mental maturing process of minors who subsequently become less capable of exercising control and restraining their drinking behaviour. As Ms D’Amato commented, the susceptibility of minors’ to peer pressure “is one important factor that makes adolescent people especially exposed to uncontrolled alcohol consumption and its dire consequences on their developing physical and mental health”.

The minimum drinking age in the vast majority of European countries is already set at 18 years, albeit some countries allow beer and wine to be consumed by 16-year-olds. In Malta, there seems little disagreement among parents, guardians and those organisations that see the consequences of alcohol abuse that it would be a positive and sensible step forward for the minimum drinking age to be raised to 18.

The one dissenting voice comes – as one might expect – from those in the entertainment establishments who fear that their sales would drop as a result of its introduction. Their sales had already fallen when the minimum age was raised to 17 four years ago and they would not welcome a further reduction. Interestingly, however, the president of the hospitality arm of the Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises –GRTU said Malta’s minimum age disparity with Europe should be corrected.

On paper, the arguments in favour of raising the drinking age to 18 seem compelling and sensible.

However, this on its own will not provide the answer to the problems of youthful alcohol abuse in our society and, if proper care is not taken, it could even make things worse by driving more of our young people onto the streets. This is a very undesirable phenomenon in several European countries.

Concerted action is required in a number of areas. The police should not turn a blind eye to the sale of alcohol to underage youngsters and, as with the anti-smoking campaign, children must be educated how to drink safely. Obviously, parents and teachers have an important role to play in this.

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