Few teenagers in the Cayman Islands look forward to turning 18 because they will be legally treated as an adult.
They look forward to it because they will finally be able to drink legally.
Included in the recently released Crime Reduction Strategy report, however, was a suggestion to raise the drinking age to 21.
Minister of Youth Mark Scotland, who is also a member of the National Security Council says that the suggestion was not made by the members of the council and probably came from another source in the government or private sector.
“We’ve never specifically discussed raising the drinking age,” he says.
But, regardless of whether or not this suggestion will amount to anything more than that, raising the drinking age could have profound effects on the youth and business communities.
Developing Under The Influence
When the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in the United States of America in 1984, the law was part of an effort to reduce drunk driving by requiring individuals across all 50 states to be 21 years old to purchase or publicly possess alcohol.
Over the years, however, research focusing on the influence of alcohol on adolescent development has given scientific merit to the raising of the minimum drinking age.
“Teenagers have less ability to metabolise alcohol than mature adults and are more susceptible to adverse effects,” explains dietician Simone Sheehan.
Alcohol can negatively affect the development of certain mental, emotional and physical faculties in teenagers.
“There are definitely brain effects and that is probably one of the main areas that research is concentrated on,” says Dr. Marc Lockhart, consultant physician.
“Sometimes the changes are quite subtle… but long-term we are seeing significant impacts on memory, judgement, and thinking,” he explains, “and it’s because the adolescent brain continues to develop and mature into the early twenties.”
The influence of alcohol on youth development is not restricted to mental faculties, however.
“A lot of liver damage has also been found,” says Lockhart.
“We find adolescents that are slightly overweight and who drink are even more susceptible to liver damage with alcohol use,” he adds.
Alcohol has also been shown to affect hormonal development in both male and females adolescents.
“Informed people are now changing or adjusting the age because we see that there are serious social and medical consequences associated with setting a drinking age,” he says.
While the medical evidence is undeniable, it is probably the social effects of teenage alcohol consumption that led to the suggestion that the drinking age be raised.
“Regular heavy alcohol consumption and binge drinking is more likely to be associated with… antisocial behaviour, violence, accidents, suicide, injuries, road accidents and criminal offences,” says Sheehan, adding that drinking can also lead to unsafe sex.
Rather than demonising alcohol, however, Sheehan advises that efforts be made to encourage safe drinking.
“If health advice on alcohol is over negative it may be ignored,” she says. “Therefore emphasis is placed on ensuring that young people are aware of safe drinking limits,[and] know how to assess the alcoholic content [or] strength of products.”
Last Call, or not
Many share Sheehan’s opinion that simply barring teenagers from legally purchasing alcohol will not have the effect on teenage drinking that the producers of the National Crime Reduction Strategy report might have hoped for.
“Didn’t stop me from [drinking] when I was 15 and it is not going to stop me now,” was one 20 year-old’s comment on the suggestion.
A recent survey by the National Drug Council revealed that most young people have had their first drink by the time the are approximately 12 years old, and that 60 out of every 100 children within the Cayman Islands have easy access to liquor.
In light of these statistics, Lockhart doubts the impact raising the drinking age would have on decreasing underage drinking.
“A lot of alcohol abuse is perpetuated by teens that are below the drinking age as it stands right now,” Lockhart says. “We could raise the drinking age to 35 and you’re still going to have a substantial amount of 14 year-olds that are drinking; that in itself is just not enough.”
Alyssa Solomon, 20, agrees: “There’s just going to be more people drinking illegally.”
Simon Miller, prevention officer and information manager with the NDC, warns that simply raising the drinking age will not prove to be a quick-fix.
“We must understand that changing the benchmark will not necessarily have an impact on the high-risk of drinking by youth in our society,” he says. “While increasing the drinking age may impact alcohol-related incidents, it may not mitigate youthful desire for alcohol.”
Alyssa Manderson, 19, agrees: “This suggestion is an overly simplistic approach to the complex problem of the whole youth alcohol abuse,” she says. “At the end of the day raising the drinking age will not eliminate the problem but merely increase the amount of individuals breaking the law on a regular basis.”
How effective enforcement of the higher drinking age would be was also questioned by young locals.
“They have a hard enough time trying to enforce the current age limit much less making it 21,” says Martina Jackson, 20, adding that some teenagers might benefit from experiencing nightlife before they go to university and need to focus on their studies.
“I feel the 18 age limit in Cayman has helped me focus better away at school because I’ve gotten a lot of the partying out of my system here,” she says.
Indeed, Scotland himself believes raising the drinking age would only provide a false sense of security.
“I think it’s more about teaching youngsters to be responsible and about the dangers of alcohol… regardless of the drinking age,” Scotland says. “Then you would have less people abusing it.”
Cutting crime or profits?
Horace Duquesnay, owner of the Corner Pocket Bar and Temptations nightclub, is doubtful that raising the drinking age would indeed lower alcohol-related incidents.
“I don’t think the drinking and the age of the person drinking has anything to do with the crime,” he says.
Like many bar and club owners, Du
quesnay believes that raising the drinking age would not only prove ineffective as a crime reducing strategy, but would also negatively impact local businesses.
Duquesnay also says that such a change might prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for clubs and bars already burdened by increased duty and work permit fees.
Young adults also questioned the economic impact raising the drinking age might have.
“I think it will have a major negative effect on the nightlife in Cayman and, in turn, the economy,” says another 20 year-old man. “A lot of young people from other countries come here just to party.”