With the school year coming to an end and Christmas in sight, it is a time of celebration and fun for Australia’s adolescents. Unfortunately, such occasions are often soaked in alcohol, sometimes with tragic results. Throughout Australia’s history the consumption of alcohol has been celebrated such that it has become an integral part of the national identity. As a result, today’s youth who choose not to become ‘blind’ drunk and party hard on a regular basis are considered ‘soft’ and ‘un-Australian’.
When alcohol-related tragedies occur, the news reports are disturbing. We have all seen the haunting footage of young, tear-stained faces looking in shock at friends injured or killed at motor accident scenes or clutching photos of schoolmates lost at memorial services. The headlines trigger a heightened awareness of the danger of alcohol abuse, but quickly the message is lost. As many as 60 drinkers die every week in Australia as a direct consequence of excessive alcohol consumption and 1 in 10 admissions to hospital emergency departments in Brisbane are booze related, according to new research out of the University of Queensland. These figures make it clear that the Australian relationship to alcohol is pathological and change is needed. Preventing and reducing underage drinking is a public health imperative that requires immediate attention.
Temptation to taste alcohol is strong within Australian culture. To view this experimentation in our youth as a simple rite of passage is abhorrent. Research indicates that early alcohol use and abuse impacts adversely on brain development. Adolescent drinkers perform worse in school, are more likely to fall behind and have an increased risk of social problems, depression, suicidal thoughts and violence.
A major factor associated with underage drinking is the availability of the ready to drink (RTDs) pre mixed spirits, better known as alcopops. They are popular among Australia’s youth as the taste of alcohol is masked with sweet mixers, fruit juice or milk. Due to the bright packaging and taste, alcopops resemble soft drinks and are made palatable to adolescents. This enables them to be consumed in larger amounts than traditional products, such as wine and beer. A survey of Victoria’s secondary school students found alcopops were the favorite drink of underage girls: 55% of female students aged 12 to 17 drink premix spirits as do 24% of male students. Fortunately, the tax on alcopops has increased 70% discouraging the consumption of the drink as its price has risen.
The increase in underage drinking raises the question, ‘Where do the minors obtain alcohol from?’ When providing an adolescent with alcohol, a parent sends a very strong message to the child, encouraging the consumption of alcohol in this age group. Most importantly, one is also telling them to ignore the law– alcohol is an illegal drug for those under the age of eighteen.
In order to reduce the incidence of underage drinking, a uniform law in all states of Australia to prohibit the supply of alcohol to adolescents in the home must be introduced and enforced. Without doubt, this law will help reduce the alcohol-fuelled violence, sexual assault, road traffic accidents and the devastating medical problems associated with under age drinking.
One does not need to look hard to see the many problems associated with underage drinking. Fixing this major problem in society will not be easy. The first step, however, is to admit there is a problem. All Australians are encouraged to contact their local Member of Parliament to petition for the introduction of a uniform law prohibiting the provision of alcohol to minors at home. Through setting a good example at home, responsible behavior in public regarding alcohol consumption will follow.
This editorial was written whilst I was on work experience at The Herald Sun, it was later published in the opinion section of the paper.