Saturday, 22 August 2015

Alcohol vapour, 'alcohol-soaked tampons', powdered alcohol, alcohol enemas and plain old drinking games: Why do some people feel the need to get drunk as quickly as possible?

The story that came out of the UK earlier this week about the bar that pumps an alcoholic vapour into the air ("a sweet mist that smells like a delicious gin and tonic") got me thinking about other ways that people have come up with to get drunk and how they are usually designed to ensure that it happens as quickly as possible.  As the article said:

"Inhalation ... is an extremely efficient approach. Compared to swallowing the stuff, which means travelling through the stomach and intestine before entering the bloodstream and hitting the brain, inhaling it is ever so much faster ... It's also dangerous. Breathe in too much too fast and you risk alcohol poisoning."

Coincidentally, I was asked questions about alcohol vapour twice this week by students, both by young men who wanted to know what risks were involved in the practice. When asked where they had heard about this method of intoxication both told me that they had been sent links to YouTube videos via social media. At the same time there have been stories of moves to ensure that powdered alcohol products don't become available in this country, with public health experts concerned about how these could be used by young people in particular (e.g., snorting the powder instead of converting it into a liquid, attempting to speed up intoxication).

Stories of young women messing around with vodka-infused tampons continue to pop up (although as I have written about in a previous blog entry, this is almost certainly an urban myth) and I certainly have met and in fact interviewed young (and not so young) people who have used syringes to ingest alcohol anally (essentially an 'alcohol enema') in an effort to get drunk as quickly as possible. As far as the teenagers who were doing this were concerned, they believed that it was also helpful in avoiding detection (I remember one 15 year-old girl telling me that she and her friends did this so if the police confronted them in a park at night they could breathe on them and tell them that they hadn't been drinking!).

The desire to get intoxicated (on whatever substance) is quite easily explained - as humans we like to 'change where we're at'. Whether it's that cup of coffee in the morning to give you that quick kick to start your day or that glass of wine in the evening to help you relax after the kids have gone to bed, almost all of us have a need to alter our current state. But why is there this apparent need to get intoxicated as quickly as possible, particularly when it is pretty obvious that the faster you get drunk, the greater the risk? Is this a new phenomenon or have we always tried to ensure that we get an effect as fast as we can?

Much has been said about the 'now generation' - our current group of young people who have been brought up in a society based on instant gratification (although Baby Boomers are often referred to as the first 'now generation' - this group of adolescents' grandparents). Today, no-one wants to wait for anything - a new piece of technology comes onto the market, we have to have it now - in fact we'll queue overnight to make sure that we're the first to have it in our hot little hands! It appears to be the same when it comes to intoxication. Those young people who do drink alcohol don't want to have to wait for the effect of the drug, they want to get drunk as quickly as possible, looking for the drink that is most likely to get them there (usually spirits or spirit-based drinks) and, at the same time, look for novel ways of consuming the product to help speed up the process. Drinking games (a very effective way of getting drunk quickly) have been around for a very long time but now there are actual products designed to assist in speedy intoxication (just take a look at some of the 'alcohol shot guns' that are available on the market - Amazon sells a number of them, including a 'Russian Roulette Shots Gun'!). 

What concerns me greatly about this trend is the far greater risks associated with attempting to speed up intoxication. It doesn't matter what route of administration you're using (you could be inhaling a vapour, snorting a powder, inserting it anally or be old-fashioned and just drink the stuff!), the faster that drug reaches your brain, the greater the potential risk. Almost all of the teen deaths that I have been involved with have involved vodka, with most of them being 15 and 16 year-olds who simply ingested too much too fast - they slammed down a whole pile of the product too quickly, able to drink a lot of it before they felt any real effect. When it did hit them, it was simply too much and they overdosed and died from alcohol poisoning ...

We're seeing the same phenomenon with illicit drugs, particularly ecstasy. I had a question from two Year 11 boys this week who wanted to know what they should have done when a friend of theirs had taken 3 ecstasy pills at once ('triple-dropped') and had collapsed and started to fit! These were 16 year-olds! The reason their friend had taken three at once - to maximise and try to speed up the effect ... absolutely frightening!

The reality is that many of these novel methods of ingesting alcohol are never going to become hugely popular - part of the attraction of alcohol for most adult drinkers is the actual act of 'drinking', i.e., holding the glass, appreciating the taste and the socialising that goes with it. 'Drinking to get drunk' is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but this need for instant gratification by our current generation of young people (possibly passed down by their parents and even their grandparents according to some), is particularly worrying. Some of these new ways of ingesting alcohol are highly risky in a number of ways, but we should never forget that simply drinking too much too fast can result in death, particularly as far as adolescents are concerned.

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