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Alcohol advertising must be curtailed to change attitudes to drinking

By Bill Stronach - posted Friday, 7 March 2003

Alcohol is very much part of our culture - we use it to socialise, to celebrate, to relax, to grieve. Alcohol is a legal drug, with legislation and regulations for its production, supply, sale and taxation. Research has even shown how moderate intake of alcohol can have health benefits in some circumstances.

But the dark side of alcohol is that, when used irresponsibly, it can cause great harm. Alcohol is behind the greatest number of drug-related deaths after tobacco and is also implicated in many social problems. In cold, hard facts, the cost of alcohol misuse to the Australian community is $4.7 billion per year.

There have been many government-sponsored community education campaigns and programs addressing the need for individuals to regulate their alcohol intake. But clearly these are not working. Binge drinking by young people is at epidemic proportions. Some of the facts are frightening:

  • in the past five years the prevalence of binge drinking has doubled;
  • 35 per cent of teenage males (aged 14-19) admit to having drunk between 11 and 30 alcoholic drinks in one day;
  • 22 per cent of teenage females have drunk between nine and 30 drinks in one day;
  • the average age at which children start to drink is falling to less than 14 years.

The younger a person is when they start to drink alcohol, the more likely they are to suffer serious drinking problems in later life.

Talking with parents, teachers and others closely involved with young people confirms the picture presented in the statistics. Alcohol use in our community, especially by very young people, is at alarming levels. Equally worrying is the sense of helplessness that surrounds the issue. A culture of heavy alcohol use is so entrenched among teenagers that parents, teachers and others feel powerless to do anything. Some are even misguidedly relieved that 'at least they are not using drugs'. The result is a normalisation and acceptance of excessive alcohol use in our community, supported by a feeling of powerlessness to address the issues.

Despite all the problems alcohol causes, our society is saturated with positive images of it. The marketing and promotion of alcoholic products has reached new heights of sophistication and intensity. For example, most of us would find it difficult to name a major sporting event which isn't sponsored by an alcohol company. Of most concern is how the look, taste, image and style of promotion of alcoholic products have changed over recent years so that they appeal to young drinkers.

However, over time we can change this cultural acceptance of unsafe use of alcohol. Creating such a cultural shift is a long-term and ambitious goal, and the activities and efforts required will be sustained, creative and multi-faceted. All sections of the community must be involved and empowered to take action, and the first step is to create community dialogue about the issue.

In addition, concerted leadership is required in this area. While the scope of alcohol issues is wide, it would be useful in the beginning to focus on a couple of key aspects. The Australian Drug Foundation believes that irresponsible marketing and promotion of alcohol and its connection to binge drinking by young people are the key issues. Starting here, we can challenge some of the norms around alcohol that have come to be so widely and unthinkingly accepted.


I believe we owe it to our young people.

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This article was first published as the editorial in the February 2003 newsletter of the Australian Drug Info Clearinghouse. Click here for the original.

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About the Author

Bill Stronach is Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Drug Foundation.

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