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Parents model responsible drinking

Teenage Drinking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd plans to spend $53 million on the problem of binge drinking, including $19.1 million to target underage drinkers. As the mother of three daughters, aged 21, 19 and 18, I feel I have a good insight into the dynamics fuelling the binge drinking crisis.

I want to be scandalised by under-age drinking, but I'm not. I started drinking at parties when I was 14 (don't tell Mum!). But it felt different back then, and less problematic. Yes, there were drunks at our parties. But most seemed sober compared to the teenagers at parties these days.

But were we really any different? Since 1984 the Health Department of Victoria has tracked drinking habits every three years in large populations of teenagers. Geoff Munro, Director of the Community Alcohol Action Network, says the studies show the number of 16-17-year-old drinkers — those who had at least one drink in the last seven days — has been stable, hovering around 50% since the study began. The number of 12 to 15-year-old drinkers in the same category has dropped, from 31% to 23%. This reflects US trends going back to the 1970s.

But the next layer of the story is disturbing. Numbers of teenage boys and girls who drank at a hazardous level have increased dramatically — 16 to 17-year-olds from 29.5% to 43.5%, 12 to 15-year-olds from 11% to 22%. Increases among girls were the biggest.

Today, drinking habits are aided by advertising, as they were back then. But Sparkling Porphyry Pearl and Cold Duck were not advertised as sex aids. Compare this with the James Boag beer ad, recently scrapped for breaching the alcohol industry's advertising code because it linked drinking to sexual success. The ad shows a woman clutching a beer as she stares seductively at a man. A previous James Boag ad survived. In this one a woman sits with her legs spread, holding a beer and wearing only a coat and her underwear.

My generation's under-age drinking choices were also more limited. Today, spirits are pre-mixed with rich, colourful syrups that disguise the alcohol flavour so effectively that in a recent study by consumer group CHOICE, 24% of the 18 to 19-year-olds tested thought there was no alcohol in the drinks at all.

Munro says some of these drinks, dubbed 'alcopops', carry as much alcohol as 2.7 standard drinks.

'They are the fastest growing drinks on the market. Wine sales grow at one per cent per year, beer sales are stable and these ['alcopop'] sales are rising by nine per cent each year,' he said.

An Australian Division of General Practice study shows who's buying them — 12 to 17-year-olds, particularly girls. With their bright colours, sweet flavours and easy accessibility, these drinks are the perfect introduction for a young palate to alcohol. By the time girls get to 18 they are old hands at consuming these drinks.

In my experience, the girls don't buy them themselves. Usually the culprit is — wait for it — their own mother.

Over the eight years my daughters attended high school, the zeitgeist changed. When my eldest daughter was under 18, not many parents bought alcohol for their children to take to parties. By the time the youngest reached the same age, most did, including me.

There are three likely explanations. One is that mothers desire to appear 'cool'. There is also a belief that drunkenness in teenagers is normal. Thirdly — and this was my reasoning — is the belief that buying alcohol for your teenagers is an exercise in harm minimisation.

Since all my daughters' peers drank, and drank earnestly, I thought real-politick was required and that by purchasing their alcohol I could control their consumption. But Munro says this approach is as naive as the others. It sends a signal that it's okay to drink.

My daughters' school took advice on the problem. The advisors didn't mince words. It was not just the girls who needed educating about safe alcohol consumption but their parents. It was all about modelling. It's hard to tell your teenager not to drink as you reach into the fridge to grab yet another sauv blanc.

Somewhere following their early, demure alcohol consumption, my peers had shifted up a gear or three, carried along by increasingly high-quality wines, greater ranges of boutique beers and better prices.

The message shot home when a friend's teenage daughter was involved in a serious car accident late one night. It was difficult for all the parents to get to the hospital quickly — most were too drunk to drive.

I managed to ignore this message and its implications for a while. But then recently my husband and I cut out drinking at home. We noticed an interesting change — the girls did the same.

They will still drink but at least for now we have hit the pause button.


Margaret RiceMargaret Rice is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.


Flickr image by orangeacid.


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