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
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.
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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