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Friday, 22 June 2012

Spirits and young people

One young Australian aged between 14-17 years old dies every weekend due to alcohol. That figure astounds me each time I say it to a group of students but it truly is beginning to surprise me that we don't see far more deaths than that due to the increasing use of spirits by the very young.
Recently I met a 16 year old girl at a school who wanted to thank me for the talk I had given her class the previous year. Only a couple of weeks after I had visited her school she had gone to a party and consumed almost a bottle of vodka with a couple of friends. She remembers little of the night apart from waking up in the hospital early the next morning with a drip in her arm and her parents sitting next to her, both of them in tears. Apparently she had lost consciousness and her friends had used some of the information I had given them in my talk to establish that she needed urgent medical assistance. 

She was an amazing young woman. She had been through an unbelievably terrifying experience but now totally 'owned' it and had made some decisions about how she now hoped to deal with alcohol and parties in the future.
It doesn't matter where I go, it is usually spirits, particularly vodka, that causes the major problems. Almost every death I have been involved with in schools has been vodka-related. So why are these drinks more risky?
First of all, spirits are much cheaper than they once were and this makes them much more accessible to young people. It is also important to remember that it takes much less vodka, rum or whisky to get drunk than for beer or wine. It would only take minutes to drink two shots of vodka (60mls), for most people it would take much longer to drink the equivalent amount of alcohol in beer (two 285ml glasses – 570mls).
If a group of young people share a bottle of spirits between them, they are drinking the equivalent of 22 glasses of full strength beer, 22 cans of mid-strength beer, more than 2 litres of a cask of red wine, or more than three bottles of champagne. For most young people, if they tried to do drink this amount of other forms of alcohol they would find it almost impossible to do so quickly before feeling the effects, thus preventing them from drinking more. 
Spirits, on the other hand, are much easier to consume quickly because you don’t need as much to achieve the desired effect. By the time you do feel the negative effects, you have drunk too much and are unable to modify your drinking accordingly. This is what is getting young people into trouble ... sharing a bottle of spirits is becoming a regular practice amongst some teenagers and something we urgently need to address.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Parents, teenage parties and alcohol

Last weekend NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell made the front page of the Sun Herald on the issue of parents, parties and teenage binge drinking. The story begins by stating that "parents who supply alcohol to other people's children face up to 12 months jail" as part of the changes being pushed by the Premier.

When you actually read the story it really says no such thing - no new laws have been made, just the ordering of a parliamentary inquiry into changes to the law to potentially prevent minors from drinking in homes, parks and halls. Call me just a little bit cynical but I wonder what the O'Farrell government didn't want on the front page last Sunday that led them to this big announcement of 'not much at all'! I remember many years ago when the then Premier of NSW, Bob Carr announced a trial of medical cannabis was to be rolled out, knowing full well that his government couldn't do anything without the Federal Government's support, guaranteeing a front page story in every newspaper and top story on every news program. His announcement just happened to coincide with the release of a report on problems with the rail system - surprise, surprise - that report got very little, if any coverage!

Don't get me wrong, I do believe that governments do want to do something about teenage parties and underage drinking - it's just that they have no idea what to do. Does anyone honestly believe that we have the police numbers to support tight laws around the provision of alcohol at teenage parties? If we don't have the police to enforce the laws, what is the point? We already have 'secondary supply' laws that are rarely, if ever, enforced and it's very difficult to stand in front of a group of young people and tell them about the laws when they know they really don't mean anything. The Victorian Government changed their laws at the end of 2011 but realistically things have not changed. If anyone has been prosecuted under the new laws we certainly haven't been told about it and really what's the point of having a law if it isn't policed?

Certainly parents have been screaming out for assistance with this matter. Many of us thought the Victorian changes would provide some well-needed support for parents in that state.

The good thing about a law in this area is that parents can use it to their advantage, so when their teenager asks to hold a party and serve alcohol they can turn around and simply say  "I can't - it's against the law!" The problem is that now that parents have a law to do just that, some parents are actually supporting their children in getting around the law! The law states that it is now illegal for anyone to serve alcohol to anyone under 18 years old unless their parent or guardian has given permission - break this law and you could be fined more than $7000. What some parents holding parties are now doing is creating notes with a 'tear-off permission slip' at the bottom requesting permission to allow their child to drink from the parents of the invited young people ... hard to believe but true. Instead of using the law to help them parent and say 'no' when appropriate, they do just the opposite ...

It'll be interesting to see what comes of this NSW parliamentary inquiry but to be honest I'm not expecting much. Governments can't dictate how parents should parent, and nor should they, but if parents don't support existing laws what is the point of creating new ones?

About Me

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Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009. With a broad knowledge of a range of content areas, Paul regularly appears in the media and is regarded as a key social commentator, with interviews on television programs such as Sunrise, TODAY and The Project.