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Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Good people make bad decsions

As I’m just about to begin my presentations to school communities across the country for 2013 it is quite a coincidence that today I received an email from a remarkable young woman who wanted to share her story with me.

I woke up this morning to receive this email:

“At the end of 2011 I heard you speak at my school in Brisbane and you were truly captivating. Since that time I've had a pretty extreme life event - very similar to those you recounted during your talk - and was wondering if I could send you a quick email about it? If you ended up retelling my story and it made even one person think again about what they were doing I would be thrilled.”

I wrote back immediately and a while later an email arrived that told of the young woman’s journey over the past couple of years. To describe it as harrowing would be an understatement – you name it, she had done it and had suffered the consequences. A girl who obviously had it all – a great school, parents who gave her everything and offers to study at the best universities – her life seemed all planned out and then it all went terribly wrong. Like so many young women I meet at schools across the country who are having problems, it started with a boy!
I won’t go into any details about what happened next but needless to say she’s had it pretty tough and only now seems to be finding her way. The good news is that she certainly does sound like she is getting back on track. Her email was incredibly moving and I find it incredible that she took the time to seek me out and write to me about what happened to her ...

When I wrote back I asked her if I could write about her email in my blog and possibly include some quotes, ensuring that I kept her anonymity, as I felt that there was one paragraph in particular that was extremely powerful. She agreed.
Here is the quote:

“It sounds simple but I never really considered that bad decisions can be made by any one; you can be the most responsible and gifted person and still fall into the depths of destruction. I look back now and realise somewhere along the way I lost myself, without even noticing at the time, but I'm slowly starting to reclaim my life. I just guess I never realised that misfortune doesn't discriminate based on your background - anyone can fall. One thing that really helped me when times were particularly dark was revisiting my memories of your talk. It sounds ridiculous, but remembering the stories you told of good people who made bad decisions was comforting. I by no means wish any bad fortune on anyone but it's reassuring to know I'm not alone.”
At any point in one’s life a bad decision can have catastrophic consequences. During adolescence, however, bad decisions are made almost daily – that’s just the nature of the beast! The problem is that you can then go through the rest of your life beating yourself up about the choices you made during this difficult time and never recovering. ‘Good people make bad decisions’ – that’s just a fact of life – I think it’s wonderful that this young woman has grasped that and is now moving on in a positive way.

I say it all the time, but I truly am one of the luckiest people in the world. Everyday I get to do a job that I love, working with amazing young people who are attempting to do the ‘right thing’ in a very complex world. It is such a privilege to do what I do and when someone takes the time to write to me and share their thoughts, troubles or aspirations I realize just how blessed I am!

Monday, 21 January 2013

Energy drinks - what are the issues?

There’s been a lot of media coverage recently about the issue of energy drinks. According to some of the press reports (and you never really know how much of what is reported is actually true!), some health experts are calling for energy drinks to be banned and admissions to emergency departments due to these drinks have recently doubled.

Energy drinks have become increasingly popular over the past few years and are a huge money-spinner for companies. There are now many brands available and there is great pressure to increase market-share. In the advertising that promotes these products we are told that these drinks will give us an extra boost and there is often the suggestion that there is something contained within the drink that you are not going to find elsewhere. Some products do have additional ingredients (such as guarana), but for most of these drinks it is the caffeine and sugar which are the active ingredients that give these drinks their supposed ‘boost’.
Let me start by stating clearly that I believe that energy drinks should not be consumed regularly by teenagers and certainly not by younger children. In addition, there should be no products available that contain alcohol pre-mixed with energy drinks. That said, I believe much of what is being written about these drinks is quite ridiculous!
For the most part, most of the issue around these drinks is concern about caffeine intake. Caffeine is without a doubt the world’s stimulant of choice. Most adults consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine on a given day -that's equivalent to about five cans of Coke, four cups of tea, a large bar of chocolate, or two cups of instant coffee. If you like your coffee more ‘up-market’, you may be consuming much, much, more. Some takeaway coffees from the well-known franchises for example contain an amazing 550 milligrams of caffeine. Just one cup will put you up around the level that many health experts believe is of concern.
In small to moderate amounts, caffeine may have the beneficial effects of stimulating alertness and decreasing drowsiness. However, when consumed in large amounts, caffeine can cause a variety of negative side effects such as nervousness, insomnia, muscle twitching, rapid heart rate, irritability and trouble concentrating. Most experts believe that there is little risk of harm when a person consumes less than 600 mg of caffeine a day. If you can keep your caffeine intake level below that level you need not worry about the negative health effects. If you are consuming more, you should start to seriously consider cutting back.
Of course, we would hope that a child’s daily intake of caffeine is much lower. It’s interesting to note the concern that some parents have regarding energy drinks and their caffeine levels, while at the same time they virtually ignore the fact that their child is regularly consuming a range of other caffeine-based products, including coffee, sometimes at quite frightening levels. I don’t know about you but I can’t remember any of my peers being regular coffee drinkers when I was at school. Now I go to some schools and there is a coffee machine available and in others, an actual coffee shop that sells cappuccinos! When did that start happening?
So how much caffeine is your child likely to consume when they have one of these energy drinks? If you believe the hype, you would think that the product is almost all caffeine, however the reality is something completely different. Yes, there are some energy drinks (particularly the ones that come in the larger cans) that contain up to two or three times as much caffeine as a cup of instant coffee, but on average they contain about 80mg, slightly less than in your morning cuppa.
Of course, there are risks associated with energy drinks (particularly if you misuse them – drinking three cans in a 30 min period is obviously not a sensible thing to do!) but we do need to be careful that we don’t overstate the potential harms. It would appear that most of these risks are associated with inappropriate caffeine intake. Too much caffeine can lead to a range of unpleasant effects whether your child drinks energy drinks, coffee or tea!
Parent concern about these products, combined with incredibly clever marketing by the manufacturers, has ensured that young people have a real interest in energy drinks. As I have already said, there are a great many myths about the amazing things these drinks are meant to be able to do. Not only do they believe that they will give them some sort of short-term 'high', some also think they will help them to learn and study more effectively. There is also another effect that a particular group of young people are really interested in – the fact that mixing them with alcohol will allow them to drink more and not get as drunk due to the stimulant effect of the caffeine.
It’s really interesting how the alcohol and hotel industries have leapt onto this one … I’ve read articles recently that have demanded the sale of energy drinks be banned in pubs and clubs because their combination with alcohol leads to violence. Hard to believe but Perth has actually taken this on board and energy drinks are no longer available on sale in the Northbridge area (the main nightlife strip of the city)! What has happened is that the alcohol and hotel industries have once again found a scapegoat for the problems that alcohol causes – this time it is energy drinks. In Perth, there were a number of ways authorities could go to reduce violence – the most obvious would have been to reduce operating hours and the amount of time that alcohol was available – no, that makes too much sense and is politically problematic. Let’s say the problem is due to energy drinks … unfortunately I guarantee the strategy will prove successful, not necessarily because violence will decrease but venues will simply not report incidents as often ….
How can anyone with two brain cells really believe that it is the caffeinated product causing the violence? As I said, I don’t think the two go together and pre-mixed products should certainly not be available but let’s not forget that it is the misuse of alcohol that is the problem here, not that they’ve had a few caffeinated drinks helping them along the way!
I’m sure there are many who will not agree with me on this issue. Certainly I’ve had many heated discussions over the years with people attending my seminars on the topic. I accept that energy drinks are not simply a ‘caffeine’ issue – but demonizing them the way we do, often overstating the harms, is dangerous and simply makes them much more attractive to a young audience susceptible to the advertising and marketing that accompanies these products.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

'Strawberry quik': Drug warnings and Facebook

I have recently been contacted by someone who had received a Facebook message warning about a new drug apparently “going around” schools in the US called ‘Strawberry Quick’. It’s a great worry that this story is doing the rounds again, this time on Facebook instead of via emails, but let’s clear it up quickly before it gets out of hand and ends up as a headline in the Daily Telegraph, again …
This is a classic ‘urban myth’ - this time telling the story of an apparent new marketing ploy of methamphetamine manufacturers. When it first appeared in this country, media stories quoted US drug agencies warning Australians to brace for a new wave of strawberry-flavoured amphetamines specifically designed to appeal to juvenile taste-buds. These stories were accompanied by email alerts sent around the country warning parents to be on the lookout for this new form of the drug which was once again being used by ‘drug pushers’ to target their children.
The flavoured drug, known as ‘strawberry ice’ or ‘strawberry quik’, was apparently already proving popular with young users in the States. According to these sources a strawberry flavouring and some pink reddish food colouring was added to the mix during the manufacturing process and then these are heavily targeted towards the younger market.
So what do we know about ‘strawberry ice’? According to the site this story is partially true. It started to do the rounds in early 2007 after there were apparently some seizures of red methamphetamine made in a number of states across the US. A number of Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents were reported as saying that the drug resembled Pop Rocks (a lolly that fizzes in the mouth) and that it was another example of the depths that ‘evil drug dealers’ would stoop to. 
The problem with this story is that there is no evidence that supports the claim that there had been any flavouring added to it. Yes, it may have been brightly coloured (which could have been due to the manufacturing process and the chemicals used and not in fact, a marketing ploy) but did it taste like strawberry Quik, as it has been claimed a number of times? As far as anyone can find out, no taste tests were done. It was all rumour and ‘someone telling someone something else that someone had told them’. Of course, the media lapped it up and concerned parents forwarded the email alert onto their friends believing that they were doing the right thing.
Now we see it on Facebook – a real sign-of-the-times! Still untrue and still very dangerous if people start sharing it via their Facebook network. So what should you do if you receive one of these messages? It’s simple – don’t pass it on!
So how do you know if information on drug warnings is accurate or not? Unfortunately there is no way that you can guarantee the tale you have been sent is based on fact or not. My best advice is to contact the source. These emails usually contain a quote from a law enforcement officer or a hospital representative stressing the urgency of the situation (you’ll see the name of a doctor on the letter provided in the Facebook message – no such person exists! See the following link for a statement from the health agency mentioned on the letterhead stating that they never issued the warning and no doctor by that name has ever worked there!). Before you pass a Facebook message, or email (they still pop up now and then), spend a moment or two trying to get in contact with the person or agency quoted in the story.
Once again, these so-called ‘warnings’ are dangerous. If you ever receive one please don't forward it on before attempting to check out the facts.

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.