Should the legal age for alcohol purchase be raised to 21?

John W Toumbourou, Kypros Kypri, Sandra C Jones and Ian B Hickie
Med J Aust 2014; 200 (10): 568-570. || doi: 10.5694/mja13.10465

Evidence and support is increasing to raise the minimum age for buying alcohol in Australia

Harmful alcohol consumption is a prevention priority in Australia. Frequent or episodic binge drinking (consuming five or more standard drinks on a single occasion) is of specific concern among youth because of their neurobiological vulnerability to the effects of alcohol. There is increasing evidence that key aspects of brain and related neurocognitive development continue into early adulthood. Available evidence associates short- and longer-term cognitive impairment during the postpubertal and early adult years with an earlier age-of-onset of harmful alcohol consumption.1 Although ethical limitations preclude human experimental trials, there is emerging neuropsychological and brain-imaging evidence associating binge drinking or persistent high levels of alcohol use with adverse impacts on brain development (notably of the frontal lobe and frontal–striatal circuits) in young people.1 The ways in which such harms may accumulate are increasingly considered within a developmental framework that seeks to identify pathways to alcohol-induced brain impairment.1 This pathway-based approach emphasises the potential benefits that may result from earlier modification of patterns of excessive alcohol use. A delay in the age of exposure to the toxic effects of alcohol may be of particular benefit to those who are vulnerable due to neurodevelopmental delays.1

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  • John W Toumbourou1
  • Kypros Kypri2
  • Sandra C Jones3
  • Ian B Hickie4

  • 1 School of Psychology and Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Research, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC.
  • 2 School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW.
  • 3 Centre for Health Initiatives, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW.
  • 4 Brain & Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.


We thank Mike Daube for his valuable advice in the drafting of this manuscript.

Competing interests:

John Toumbourou declares money paid to his institution through National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council (ARC) grants for research relating to alcohol misuse by young people. Kypros Kypri declares grant and fellowship funding from the NHMRC and grant funding from the ARC and the Health Research Council of New Zealand. Sandra Jones declares money paid to her institution by the ARC for a future fellowship. Ian Hickie is a National Mental Health Commissioner, and has received remuneration as a board member of headspace, from Bupa Australia for serving on a medical advisory board, and from Servier, Janssen, AstraZeneca and Pfizer for lectures and speaking engagements. He also declares grant money paid to his institution by DrinkWise and by NSW Health for reports relating to alcohol misuse and young people.

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