Published in the Courier Mail 10 April 06
THERE’S something comforting about chocolate milk when you’re a child. Mix it with vodka though, and it becomes a treacherous brew – not just because of the alcohol in it but because you can’t even tell it’s there.
Research released by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre revealed teens can’t distinguish between a normal chocolate milk, and one pre-mixed with vodka. Such pre-mixed drinks have been heavily marketed to young people over the past 10 years and have become the drink of choice among underage drinkers – in dangerous quantities.
In the past month in Australia, 35 per cent of teenage males and 22 per cent of teenage females will have drunk between nine and 30 drinks in one day. In one year, our nation’s already overburdened hospitals have to treat more than 72,000 admissions caused by high-risk drinking. In fact, the social cost of alcohol to Australia was recently reported at $7.5 billion a year.
Australia has a problem. We nod our head and agree but no-one wants to own it. While it’s true that the reasons behind dangerous drinking are complex and multi-faceted, that doesn’t allow us all to simply eschew ownership of the problem. People under 24 have reported that the main reason they drink is to fit in on social occasions.
Considering you and I have created the society they are trying to fit into, we must take some ownership of this problem. We shape the culture that allows and tacitly condones risky underage drinking by normalising the use and abuse of alcohol.
Research into at-risk drinkers, conducted by the National Alcohol Strategy for the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing, provided insight into the assumptions held within our society. “Alcohol is perceived to be liberating and empowering. Getting drunk is a badge of being an adult and drinking is one of the significant ‘rites of passage’ into adulthood,” it reported.
Consider how often you’ve heard the comment that someone needs a drink to relax or loosen up a little? How many parents do you know who have gone out and bought alcohol for their underage son or daughter? Have you ever heard the misadventures of inebriated friends or acquaintances being affectionately or admiringly retold? Every time these things happen, we are building a culture and we are forming social norms.
If we want to deal with the problem of underage drinking, we must be honest enough to realise that this can’t be dealt with in isolation from wider community views on alcohol.
That demands we ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions.
For instance, do we feel we can shed inhibitions, or become emboldened without alcohol? Can we conceive of social events without alcohol to ease social awkwardness? Is alcohol really a compulsory part of life, necessary for us to enjoy ourselves? Until we examine our own assumptions about alcohol, and why we hold them, we cannot begin to develop the foundations for a holistic strategy to reduce at-risk behaviour.
After all, the answers to these questions shape the norms of the society that influence our young people.
Youth binge drinking will not be solved quickly and it will take courage and bold thinking to address it. We must genuinely examine our own thoughts and attitudes towards alcohol and then seek to integrate these with the message we give our young people.
If we don’t, young people will rightly dismiss our advice as hypocritical. We are the message and we must embody and live out the values we wish to advocate. Anything less and our message will be as hard to distinguish as alcohol in a pre-mixed drink.