Teenage birthday parties are supposed to be fun. Whether it is sweet 16, or effervescent 18 they should be joyful rites of passage. But they aren’t if, despite the best intentions of parents, the alcohol fuelled birthday party turns sour, with the birthday boy ending up in hospital with a busted face, or the birthday girl spewing up in a bucket.
Is this fiction, are they isolated incidents, or something that we merely accept as a societal rite of passage? Since regular measurement began in 1984 in our secondary schools, rates of binge drinking have gone up steadily for every age group, even for those as young as 12. The girls have caught up with, and in some aspects surpassed, the boys.
Advocates for a laissez-faire approach say that there can’t be a problem because overall alcohol consumption remains constant. While I agree that consumption has been fairly constant, we simply have some people drinking less, but we have a worrying, substantial and increasing proportion of people, young and old, drinking dangerously.
One in five Victorians between the ages of 16-24 drink to get drunk, on most or every occasion they go out. And alcohol related hospitalisations have risen by 36 per cent in the last five years. Something is happening out there, and it isn’t getting better.
So what has happened in Victoria over the last 20 years? There is greater promotion of alcohol, much of which is very appealing to young people. Across Australia advertising for booze has risen by 10-15 per cent a year for the last few years, and it has become trickier and smarter (remember Boonie?).
There is no effective regulation of alcohol advertising, given that the Alcohol and Beverages Advertising Code is a toothless tiger. New products, in particular the sweet alcopops, targeted at the young female market have become runaway successes.
The availability of, and access to grog has increased at a rate of two new licences a day in Victoria since the mid 1980s. There are many more outlets per person in country areas of Victoria, and at the same time, according of Dr Anne-Marie Laslett at Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre, these country areas have much higher rates of alcohol-related hospitalisations, death, assaults and family violence.
The intensity of selling liquor has increased as large supermarket chains do battle with mega booze-only outlets to make alcohol ever more available and cheaper.
Twenty years ago we liberalised the licensing regime in Victoria to encourage the European-style drinking culture associated with dining and relaxation. In a large part that has happened, but at the same we’ve also expanded the binge drinking culture as well. A licence to sell alcohol given to a huge liquor outlet, as compared to a licence for a restaurant, will have completely different repercussions on local families, neighbourhoods and suburbs.
Another very compelling reason for addressing binge drinking among young people is the scientific evidence about the damage alcohol can do to developing adolescent brains.
Adolescents can stay awake and drink for longer than adults, yet they are twice as susceptible to the effects of alcohol. Developing brains are more sensitive to learning and memory problems caused by toxic levels of alcohol. And age matters: children who start drinking before 15 are five times more likely to abuse alcohol than those who start at 21 or older.
At the same time we have deregulated our approach to alcohol, another cultural shift has occurred in our attitudes to parenting. We want to be friends with our teen-aged children, not only parents.
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