Changing the legal drinking age in the Netherlands

By Nynke de Vette

Mahoney and Thelen argue that institutions have basic dynamic properties that permit change, one of these properties being the distribution of resources with unequal implications such that there are winners and losers to a particular rule. The other property is compliance, where the limitations of rule compliance create space for rule change without actually changing the rules.  

Prior to 2014, the legal drinking age in the Netherlands was 16 years. However, this was changed to 18 years on January 1st 2014. Effectively, the selling to and possession of alcohol by those under the age of 18 became illegal. The government’s decision was grounded on the idea that teenagers should be protected from the harmful effects of alcohol until they are officially regarded as adults. Another motivation was to reduce the incidence of alcohol-induced hospitalization, which had been increasing since 2007. (see figure)

The rule change had implications especially for those that were between the age of 16 and 18. Whereas 16-year-olds had been able to purchase alcohol in 2013, this was suddenly no longer possible; they now had to wait another 2 years. Thus, this group of people can be considered the losers of the new rule, whereas the winners were those that had just passed the age of 18. For this group of people the motivation to change the rules comes from the effect of the rules themselves.

It is then important to discuss the role of compliance. Compliance is complicated through the contested nature of rules, as well as the degree of openness in the interpretation and enforcement of rules. Enforcement is especially relevant in the case discussed above, because the intention of the policy change is not reflected in the figures. Instead, the incidence of alcohol-induced hospitalization has further increased since 2013. This is because the rule is unable to cover the complexities of all possible real-world situations. Those under the age of 18 have been able to obtain alcohol from friends and through the use of fake IDs.