Monday, 14 May 2012

Alcohol and young people

Here is an Opinion Piece I was asked to put together for the Newcastle Herald in February 2010 ....

Alcohol has always played a role in some young people’s lives. No matter what your age, if you cast your mind back to your final years of high school there were surely at least a small group of your classmates who were well known for their partying habits! Are we to believe today’s headlines that things are so dramatically different now?

Firstly, let me make something completely clear – we really have no evidence to indicate that we have more young people drinking than ever before. However, what we do appear to have is a hardcore group of risky drinkers who are drinking in a far more risky way than ever before. As already said, this group of risky drinkers have always been there – it’s just now they’re starting younger, drinking more, more often, and possibly most frighteningly their drink of choice is spirits, particularly vodka. So if they are such a small group why should we be so worried?

These young people, both male and female, are loud, they’re obvious and they attract a great deal of attention. These are the teenagers who get in trouble with the law, find themselves in accident and emergency rooms and find their stories on the front pages of newspapers across the country. As a result it appears that they’re a much larger group in number than they really are. Unfortunately, they’re also extremely influential and as a result their behaviour is perceived as the ‘norm’ by other young people. The belief that ‘everyone is doing this’ is extremely dangerous and needs to be challenged at every opportunity.

Adolescent drinking should really come as no real surprise. Drinking to the point of intoxication has become so normalised across our society that why wouldn’t our young people drink at high levels? Simply examine the role models that our children have to follow and it isn’t difficult to understand the pressures they face. What do they see in their own home? How do the celebrities and sport stars they look up to socialize? What is the one constant at almost every celebration in our society – whether it be a birth, a death, a victory or a loss? Alcohol is all pervasive and in recent years it appears to have gotten completely out of control.

One tragic consequence of this is young people dying. Over the years I have been involved with a number of teenagers who have died after drinking large amounts of alcohol. The last five schools I have been to where young people died all involved Year 10 girls who all died after each of them drank almost a bottle of vodka. None of these girls died alone. They all died in party settings and were being looked after by friends who were so drunk they really couldn’t look after themselves, let alone anyone else!

The Australian Government has made a commitment to dealing with the ‘teenage drinking issue’. A mass media campaign, a National Binge Drinking Strategy and funding of a range of community programs across the country have been rolled out but really what’s the point? What is the sense of pouring money into trying to deal with underage drinking if you don’t really deal with the problem for what it really is – a community issue?

Young people learn from watching those around them. Unless we address the wider community issues that we are facing with alcohol we will continue to see money poured into the ‘black hole’ that is underage drinking and nothing much will change. We know what will work when it comes to reducing alcohol problems in this country but none of the possible solutions are popular. Raising the price, reducing access and stopping alcohol advertising and sponsorship of sport are most likely to be the most effective ways to make real change, but it would be a very brave government who would really push any of these through. Try to reduce the average Australian’s access to alcohol and they will most probably find themselves out of power at the next election! That means we will continue to see lots of talk and most probably not a whole lot of real results and that is truly tragic for our kids.

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