No to drinking age, Yes to education

Posed photo of a woman standing and facing the wall, with a bottle of alcohol and a wine glass in her hands, to illustrate an article on alcohol addiction.

There is no need to raise the legal drinking age to 21, as in the US.

When contacted, the chairman for the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Culture, Community and Youth, Mr Baey Yam Keng, said: "A vast majority of our youth drink responsibly, so I wouldn't want to penalise everyone just because of the irresponsible few," said Mr Baey, a Member of Parliament (MP) for Tampines GRC.

Recently, The Health Promotion Board (HPB) said it was studying New York's recent move to raise the minimum age for cigarette purchase from 18 to 21.

HPB also said last month that it was monitoring Australia's efforts to impose plain packaging for cigarettes, among other measures, to reduce the number of smokers here.

Asked if HPB's studies could be applied to drinkers, Mr Baey said: "To me, smoking is not good for your health but social drinking, in moderate doses, is fine."

Deputy chairman for the Culture, Community and Youth GPC, Mr David Ong, said he supports "any measures that promote the well-being of our youth, especially alcohol addiction".

Raising the legal drinking age may be the right step but this could also be merely "a quick fix to the problem", added the Jurong GRC MP.

"More focus should be placed on raising the awareness of responsible drinking and making sound choices."

One of those choices is making young people realise the dangers behind binge drinking, which is defined by the Health Ministry as having six or more drinks on a single occasion over a short period of time, experts told The New Paper.

Dr Munidasa Winslow, an addictions specialist at Promises - a mental health and addictions consulting service - said: "Most people develop drinking problems over time but the younger ones I've encountered also abuse alcohol, meaning they binge drink or drink a lot at one time."

Psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre agreed, saying that young people tend to turn to alcohol to cope with stress or as a way to feel mature.

But some don't know when to stop. And this can be dangerous.


Dr Winslow has seen more young people going to him for alcohol addiction: "I had one young patient who was at the beach when he was drunk.

"He fell into the water but his body could not react, so he could not swim. Luckily, someone saved him, but he still had to be sent to the hospital because there was too much water in his lungs."

However, Dr Winslow and Mr Koh are not in favour of raising the legal drinking age.

Said Dr Winslow: "A lot of 18-year-old boys are serving national service, so the idea that you are allowed to die for your country but not drink doesn't make sense.

Education, they said, remains the best way to combat this problem.

"Improve their sense of self-restraint through awareness and education. This will lead to a positive mindset and ultimately, self-control," said Mr Koh.

TNP asked a group of young men drinking at Read Bridge, near Clarke Quay, if raising the age limit was a good idea.

A 19-year-old NSF, who wanted to be known only as James, said: "I'm sure people will find ways of getting alcohol if such a rule comes into law.

"But not everyone goes overboard. The majority of us are smart enough to go drinking with good friends. At least there is safety in numbers."

A Clarke Quay club bouncer, who declined to be named, said raising the age limit "would hurt business".

But a club manager felt otherwise, saying: "Changing the policy would mean less trouble generally. Besides, it is the older drinkers who spend more on drinks."

In 2012, a study by the Institute of Mental Health's (IMH) research division said those aged 18 to 34 were twice as likely to drink excessively and binge drink. One per cent of Singaporeans aged between 18 and 29 drink regularly. Out of that number, 16 per cent binge drink.

More youngsters were doing it because of the availability and social acceptance of alcohol, more disposable income and a partying culture, the report added.

A vast majority of our youth drink responsibly, so I wouldn't want to penalise everyone just because of the irresponsible few. - GPC chairman and MP Baey Yam Keng

This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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