Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Viewpoint: Hypocrisy helps fuel kids’ drinking

Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, has painted a worrying picture of under-age drinking in the province.

Astonishingly, the average age at which the so-called 'blue bag generation' experience their first alcoholic drink is 11 and the greatest increase in their drinking takes place between then and 13 years of age.

By the age of 16, some 80% of teenagers have had a drink. So, before they are entitled to vote or to legally have sex, young people's drinking habits are already formed.

In common with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland's young people have one of the worst reputations for drunkenness in Europe. Binge drinking, which carries with it a whole raft of deadly health hazards, is becoming a way of life, not just for the young, but across all age groups. In short, as a nation we do not drink responsibly. In most European cultures drink is as cheap and as freely available as in Northern Ireland, but with less of the health and social consequences. Dr McBride's report on drinking should be a wake-up call for all of us.

As he points out, adults often decry the behaviour of young people and their abuse of alcohol. They point the finger of blame at licensed premises, both off-sales and public houses, who serve drink to under-age teenagers.

They condemn those who buy drink for the young and they accuse the police of turning a blind eye to the issue of street corner drinking.

What they seldom do is question their own role in their children's attitudes to alcohol. If adults are brutally honest with themselves, they will note that their own attitude to drink is often juvenile; that they binge drink and that they glorify their own drinking excesses. Why should they expect teenagers, who often feel drink gives them confidence in social or sexual situations, to behave any differently from the examples they see all around them? If mothers or fathers often drink irresponsibly, then it should not be a surprise that their children will follow suit. Of course there is also an onus on Government to legislate sensibly on the issue of alcohol and for those who sell alcohol to see their role as more than just a way to make a quick profit.

The sale of alcohol in supermarkets at very low prices makes it available to even the very young and this practice should be discontinued, either voluntarily or by statute. As well as that, the Government must look again at its proposed licensing law reform which would open up the sale of drink to virtually anyone who wanted to apply for a licence.

Given that accident and emergency departments are now seeing younger and younger people being admitted with alcohol-related illnesses, including chronic liver and kidney damage, there needs to be a joined-up approach to the problem.

Advertising standards must be examined; health promotion should be increased; licensing laws required to be responsible and education should include lifestyle choices as well as academic or vocational subjects.

And, most importantly, parents need to discuss alcohol use with their children and practice what they preach.

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