A group of Australian professors are calling for the minimum drinking age to be increased to 21, following evidence of alcohol-related permanent brain damage in young people.

A higher legal drinking age would protect youngsters from mental anguish, traffic trauma and violence, the professors say in an article in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).

The brain is still developing at the age of 18 and many young people suffer irreversible damage from drinking at levels many Australians consider to be normal.

People who start drinking later are also more likely to be moderate drinkers than those who start too young, according to their review of evidence from the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“Raising the legal age will reduce not only youth alcohol problems but also other forms of drug use,” says lead author Professor John Toumbourou of the Deakin University school of psychology.

“Raising the legal age to 21 in the US in the mid-1980s led to a rapid decline in secondary school students using alcohol and other drugs.”

Around 70 per cent of US high school students abstain from drinking, compared with 42 per cent in Australia, according to the MJA article.

It says that although some Australian youths might oppose a higher age limit, support among adults has grown to around 50 per cent.

“Raising the legal age will send a clear public health message that alcohol is a neurotoxin for young people,” says the article.

“It would lead to a generational change in Australian culture toward moderate adult alcohol use gradually becoming more normal.”