I recently visited a school and after my Year 12 presentation a number of young people came up to me wanting to ask me questions. I was finally left with two young men, who were obviously friends, both 17-years-old. One of them had already asked his question but stayed around to support his mate who wanted some advice - here is the general gist of his question:
"When I go out to a party and there is alcohol available I find it really difficult to stop at just one. If there is a carton of anything, I'll start with a can or a bottle and have every intention to stop after I've had that. I don't understand why, but I find that incredibly difficult to do - I keep going back and sometimes drink an entire carton, often making myself feel sick in the process. In my head, I want to stop - I know what will happen if I keep drinking - but I almost can't stop myself. What should I do?"
I asked him whether he drank during the week (he didn't), whether he thought about alcohol or drinking at any other time (he didn't) and a couple of other questions to try to determine whether he could be coming alcohol dependent but, to me, it sounded more likely to be a lack of self-control more than anything else (he was also one of those young people who simply didn't feel comfortable in a social situation without a drink in his hand) ... I then suggested a couple of tricks he could use to slow his drinking down and asked him if he had spoken to anyone else about this 'problem'. He then told me what his father had suggested to him when he had asked for advice - his answer blew me away!
"Dad said the best thing I could do was to make sure that I only had $100 in my pocket when I went out and to stop drinking when I spent that!"
Now I don't know what my face looked like but his mate's face was a picture! Before I could say anything (and I have to be honest, I didn't quite know what to say!), his mate blurted out "But that could be four bottles of vodka!" I'm sure that father had the best of intentions when he gave his son advice (and isn't it great that he went to his Dad for help with this?) but had he really thought it through and worked out how much alcohol he was actually recommending?
I wrote about this issue a couple of years ago when I discussed the bizarre phenomenon of parents hosting post-formal events who include on the invitation that those young people attending are able to bring up to four cans to drink at the event. As I said at the time ... "Do the parents hosting this event realize how much alcohol that actually is?" Even if each can (or bottle) was the equivalent of one standard drink (which it rarely is), that is still four standard drinks ... The Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking recommends that "for healthy men and women, drinking no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury arising from that occasion" - and that's for adults! No number of drinks is recommended for those under 18-years, with the guidelines stating that "not drinking alcohol is the safest option."
Once again, I realize that 'not drinking alcohol' is not realistic for all young people, but this idea that four drinks is an appropriate (and safe) number for parents to provide to their teens is frightening. It is equally as concerning when you hear that there are people who believe that stopping drinking when you're spent $100 on alcohol is somehow promoting safer use!
When I discussed this last, I had recently surveyed some Year 10-12 students and asked them some simple questions about the last time they drank alcohol - e.g., who provided the alcohol, how much they provided, what type of alcohol was it, and how much they drank? The results clearly showed that amongst those parents who did provide alcohol to their teens, there appeared to be a poor understanding of how much they were providing and their teen was consuming, as well as the potential harm associated with such behaviour.
When you read some of the responses from the students, the sheer amount provided is staggering and clearly illustrates that some parents simply don't understand how much alcohol is in the can or bottle that they hand over to their child ...
- "My Dad gives me a 6-pack of beer to take with me. I've been given that since the end of Year 10. They don't want me to drink spirits like my mates." (Year 12 male)
- "I have three Smirnoff Double Blacks, sometimes 4 depending on what kind of party it is and whether my parents know the people who are hosting it." (Year 11 female)
- "Usually 4 bourbon and cola UDLs. My parents have said that if they catch me drinking straight spirits then that'll stop but they've been giving me this much since the end of Year 10." (Year 11 male)
- "Two Smirnoff Double Blacks. I told my Mum that all my friends drink vodka and that I think that's dangerous and I am able to better control my drinking with these drinks and not get into trouble." (Year 10 female)
- "Four beers and never anymore. Mum and Dad have said they don't want me to drink spirits and have said that beer is safer. Some weeks I start off with a couple of shots of vodka with my mates just to get the night going but that's about it." (Year 10 male)
Let's break down just how much alcohol some of these teens were actually being provided ...
- A 6-pack of beer is going to be around 8.2 standard drinks (full-strength - 1.2 per can), around 6 (mid-strength - 1 per can) and 4.2 standard drinks (light - around 0.7 per can). Of course this varies depending on brands (cans and bottles can vary slightly but not too much usually) but realistically that's a lot of alcohol
- The number of standard drinks in bourbon and cola UDL cans vary depending on whether they are the 'normal strength' or 'black label' variety. Four of these cans can amount to anywhere from 4.8 to 6 standard drinks for cheaper brands, up to 7.6 for the higher strength and more expensive ones
- Four Smirnoff Double Blacks (which continues to be the most popular drink amongst young women) results in them consuming 7.6 standard drinks – more than a third of a bottle of vodka!
I firmly believe that most parents who are providing their teens alcohol to take to parties and gatherings are doing so for what they believe are the 'right reasons'. I hear it all the time from parents I meet - "I give it to them because they're going to get it from somewhere and I'd much rather they get it from me - at least I know what they're drinking."
These are parents who truly love their kids - I don't for a minute think they are intentionally trying to put their kids into harm's way. In fact, I think it's just the opposite - they're trying to protect their child. I'm sure that was the case with the father I mentioned earlier - his son had approached him for help and he gave him the best advice he could ...
You can see from the student responses provided that a common theme was that their parents didn't want them to drink spirits. I think that is still the case - parents, for the most part, are very aware that groups of young people downing bottles of vodka, bourbon or rum is extremely risky. The theory, therefore, is providing them with beer or pre-mixed drinks could reduce the risk of them going down that path. Unfortunately, when they do this, they don't seem to have any idea as to how much alcohol they are actually providing their teens - at least, I hope that is the case. For, as I have said in the past, if there is any parent who truly believes that they're keeping their child safer by providing them with the equivalent of well over a third of a bottle of spirits to take to a party or gathering (because that's what a 6-pack of beer or 4 Smirnoff Double Blacks actually is) we really have a problem!