Debate on drinking and smoking age after voting age lowered

PHOTO: Japan News/ANN

With the lowering of the voting age to 18, discussions are taking place within the Liberal Democratic Party about lowering the legal age for drinking and smoking to 18 as well.

However, underage drinking and smoking have shown no signs of ceasing even under the current law, which prohibits these activities until the age of 20. Some fear that the problem would spread to even younger people if the legal drinking and smoking age was lowered to 18.

"Universities are a lawless area when it comes to drinking," said a 19-year-old sophomore at a private university in Tokyo. When she participated in a camp for a student club, many first-years got sick and vomited because they were forced to drink by older students, who criticised them for not fully participating.

She eventually left the club because she disliked the fact that it had so many drinking events. She opposes lowering the legal drinking age because it would "remove even the legal restriction."

A 22-year-old student in his fourth year at a private university in Kanagawa Prefecture drank alcohol when he was underage at pubs for student club gatherings and other occasions. He did so because "everyone else was drinking."

"If third-years in high school become able to drink, then 16- and 17 year-olds will be mixed in with them," he predicted.

According to a 2013 survey of universities nationwide by Ikki Nomi Boshi Renraku Kyogi Kai (Liaison council to prevent binge drinking), a Tokyo group comprising relatives of university students who died after being forced to drink, 178 out of 321 responding universities prohibited drinking on campus.

In March of this year, Meiji University offered a patch test for new students to determine if they can metabolize alcohol, and organised lectures by employees of beer manufacturers regarding the dangers of drinking.

Likewise, more universities are prohibiting smoking on their campuses. The Health Promotion Law implemented in 2003, as well as ordinances aimed at preventing second-hand smoke, are thought to have influenced this.

Food and drink establishments have difficulty verifying customers' ages. Marche Co. in Osaka, which operates the Hakkenden chain of izakaya pubs, instructs its employees to ask not only about age but also the zodiac sign of customers who look underage.

If a customer is found to be too young, then any adult customers with them are asked to sign a document pledging not to allow underage people to drink.

The manager of a certain establishment landed in trouble after refusing to sell alcoholic beverages to a young customer who did not have identification. "No matter what the drinking age is, the difficulty of verifying age will not change," says the manager.

At supermarkets operated by Aeon Co., customers who look underage are asked to show identification, and there are broadcasts in stores stating that restricted products will not be sold to those who are too young, even if the purchase is being made on behalf of their parents.

At convenience stores, devices that ask for confirmation on a touch screen that the purchaser is over the age of 20 whenever alcohol or cigarettes are sold are becoming more widespread. However, the final decision on whether to allow a sale rests with the store employee.

"Alcohol and cigarettes are strongly addictive, and young people feel the effects more strongly, so the issue should not be grouped together with the voting age," said Ikuro Namura, head of the Akita University Health Center and an authority on the problem of underage drinking and smoking.

"Casually lowering the legal age may send the mistaken message that the negative health effects are not very serious," Namura added.

Lower drinking age in Europe

Some countries allow drinking by people under the age of 20.

According to information gathered by Kirin Brewery Co. from sources including a 2014 report by the World Health Organisation, the legal drinking age is 16 in Germany, and 18 in Britain and France.

In Japan, the laws prohibiting consumption of alcoholic beverages and tobacco products by minors state that only those who are 20 or older may drink alcohol and smoke.

The idea of lowering this age arose from the June revision of the Public Offices Election Law that changed the voting age from 20 to 18.

Some members within the LDP's special committee on the age of adults said the age at which alcohol and tobacco consumption are allowed should also be lowered "as a symbol of adulthood."

A motion was made during the assembly in February to lower this age to 18, but after stiff opposition from those who worried about its effect on health, or about alcohol and cigarettes being brought into high schools, it was decided that the motion would be reconsidered.

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