Story by Joseph Cooney. Edited for online by Cameron Kirby

Academics are urging the Australian government to raise the drinking age to 21, after a study found alcohol can cause brain damage to young drinkers.

The paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia has found that the developing brain of a young adult at 18 is still vulnerable to the toxicity of alcohol.

One of the study’s authors, John Toumbourou, a professor of health psychology at Deakin University, says young people are putting themselves at risk.

“Heavy drinking is actually a factor that can cause problems with the development of the brain,” he says.

“Alcohol is actually quite toxic for young people before they are fully matured in their neural development in their mid-20s.”

He says at 18 the brain is still developing and that young people vastly underestimate the risk of heavy drinking and how it can harm them.

A nation of binge drinkers

According to Professor Toumbourou binge drinking is a cultural issue among Australian youth, which in many cases leads to similar behaviour throughout adulthood.

But he says comparisons with the United States and their drinking age of 21 shows this can change and that it will affect the way people drink later in life.

“The idea is that they are unlikely to take on binge drinking then as a lifestyle,” he said.

“They may, as they do in America, have a period during their college years where they experiment with it.

“But we have found when we have done cross national comparisons with the US that there are actually far lower rates of both drinking and drug use.”

Drinking takes a toll

Australian Medical Association vice president Professor Geoff Dobb says emergency rooms see the human toll of intoxication.

“There is a survey that was done last year which showed that of people that were in our emergencies department after midnight, up to a quarter were there simply due to the adverse affects of drinking too much,” he said.

But Professor Toumbourou doesn’t think restricting access to one vice will turn young people to another.

“The evidence doesn’t support that at all,” he said.

“In fact what we think is the case is that if young people grow up and they are not using alcohol they are just not interested in using drugs later on.

He says that if you use alcohol at a young age you are more interested in getting intoxicated and to go on to use other drugs.

“It does seem possible to have a generation that is just less interested in using drugs or alcohol,” he said.

Change would be difficult

Professor Toumbourou says he wants the government put the issue on the agenda.

But the AMA is hesitant in backing a 21 age limit.

Professor Dobb says that changing the age limit for drinking would be a difficult task.

“Now if we were looking at the alcohol drinking age today without having any track record it would almost certainly be higher than 18,” he said.

“But the current laws in Australia are is that it is 18 and to change that will really require the support of the whole community.”