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Why do young women drink?And what makes them stop?

Belfast man Joby Murphy, whose funeral took place yesterday, is a high profile victim of our cheap booze culture but, as Jane Hardy finds out, it poses as great a risk to young girls as to men

We all know how the ladette culture of the ’90s brought in the notion that it’s not just ok for women to drink, but actually positively cool for them to get completely sozzled. As Zoe Ball swagged from a bottle of Jack Daniels on the way to her wedding, booze became the drug of choice for young, and underage, girls in cities across the UK.

Zoe is now famously teetotal but have other young women learned about the perils of too much booze? It seems not. Last year Amy Winehouse fell victim to a life of excess while Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding recently completed a stint in rehab. But why do young girls do it? It can be insecurity, the feeling of wanting to belong to the gang, or a way of blotting out problems at home or school. Ardglass teenager Kelly McNabb, who is trying to help other young people avoid alcoholism, says that young people drink “to hide something, it’s a coping mechanism”.

Of course, young men, too, are at risk from drinking. Today the Murphy family from Belfast are holding the funeral of their 20-year-old son Joby. Tragically, he drowned in the River Lagan in the early hours of January 26 after spending an evening after the Snow Patrol gig with mates in the Beach Club consuming £1 vodka shots. His body was only found last weekend.

Our drug of choice is alcohol, and youth overindulgence — and underage drinking — is in part fuelled by the availability of cheap alcohol in cut-price booze promotions and on supermarket shelves. Joe Murphy, Joby’s father, has spoken out against flexible licensing laws that permit the prices that tempt young drinkers to over-indulge. He welcomed Nelson McCausland’s intention to ban irresponsible cheap drink promotions, adding: “Parents have their fears when their children go out. You used to worry about drugs, but now it's drink, it's frightening.”

Minimum pricing is one possible solution and the authorities here have discussed an all-Ireland minimum price strategy for alcohol with a suggested price tag of 50p per unit of alcohol. That would raise the price of a large bottle of cider from around £2.30 to nearer £7.

Health Minister Edwin Poots has said: “In real terms alcohol is 62% more affordable today than it was in 1980 and as the relative price of alcohol falls, consumption and misuse increases.”

Local addiction agencies, who deal with the fall-out from happy hours that turn sour, share the Assembly’s concern.

Jim Weir, head of youth services at the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse (FASA) says: “Minimum pricing is only part of the story. Youth drinking is crazy and we honestly haven’t had a real impact on this issue. Alcoholism costs Northern Ireland between £500m-£900m annually, when you count the resulting crime, absenteeism, hospital costs and cancers. That’s a lot for a population of 1.7m.”

Jim’s solution would be a stop drinking campaign along the lines of the successful anti-smoking campaign. At the moment, the message is only getting across when drinkers become problem drinkers.

We talked to two young people about their experience of the new drinking culture.

‘At my worst I would drink a litre of vodka straight and then a bottle of wine’

Kelly McNabb (19), who is single, lives in Ardglass and is currently studying at Coleraine College. She says:

I saw what happened to Joby Murphy on the news. Cheap drink like the £1 vodka shots is very tempting and when I see somebody getting drunk or going down that road, I know how they’re feeling. I’ve been working on a DVD, at the moment it’s just images and writing, to show people the risks.

A few years ago I was drinking lots of Buckfast, because it was cheap. I started drinking heavily when I was 15 and I was drinking a bottle every night. What I drank depended on money, and the cost, but two or three of us would have had £50 worth of drink.

My friends helped me with the money for drink and I was also on the job seeker’s allowance of £53.

Why did I do it? There was stuff that had happened to me, including the wrong man, something like that anyway, and it was a way out. I had no other way of dealing with it. I didn’t go to school and had been bunking off from St Mary’s Secondary, Downpatrick. I used to lock myself in my room and not go to school. It came to a point where my mum couldn’t handle me any more. She said it was either me leaving home or her.

There was a lot of anger, a lot of harsh words, and you say things you don’t mean like ‘I wish you were dead, I wish I was dead.’. I ended up living in a house belonging to a friend of my father, and my dad kept an eye on me. Me and my dad are really close and he was always checking on me. I have an older brother who’s 21 and a fisherman but he’s had an easier time. My mum and dad never drank or did drugs, they didn’t believe in it. And that made it harder for me.

I became really ill, sick from the booze and bulimic. I didn’t and wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t let anyone near me.

At my worst, I could drink a litre of vodka straight — you’d have to eat something with it. Not only that, I’d have a bottle of wine and some shorts. Sometimes I was hungover, but more from the wine. After that, I stopped drinking and got onto cannabis after a friend offered me a bit of weed.

I was addicted and thought it was great but it just makes you lie there and giggle. My dad wanted me to go to the doctor’s and eventually I did it for him. Before I was ready to stop though, I went through about 20 counsellors and key workers and psychiatrists.

But I decided to change and stop one day a few months ago when I was walking down a street in Downpatrick. It was a Thursday, just after my English class, and quite a dull day.

It just came into my head and I thought ‘This time I have to do it’. Now I see Sarah at MACS (Supporting Young People), and another worker, Syd at Opportunity Youth, and they’re great. Sometimes I’m tempted and I’ll have a drink now and again but will never again drink like I did. It made me feel sick and I used to get into bad situations. I would flop out with drink and put my hand through doors — I have a scar. I just wanted to stop but I needed to be ready. We’re a society that wants to drink. Most people drink to hide something. It’s a coping mechanism, a quick fix that doesn’t work.

I don’t think drink pricing makes any difference and it’s not fair on people having to pay more because other people have problems. And it doesn’t matter if off licences are stricter about the age limit, you’ll always get someone with ID to get it for you. Now I want to get exams and get out my video to show others that people like me have been through this experience, that there is somebody there who will listen and communicate — and help.”

‘I can spend £40 a night on booze’

James* (17) is at school and lives in Belfast. He says:

Yeah, I heard about Joby — it was sad, especially as it wasn’t intentional. And I read about the £1 vodka shots. All the pubs have promotional offers now during the week and at weekends, to encourage people to come in. I’ve drank at the Beach Club where Joby was drinking and have had their £1 vodkas with Red Bull. They’re nice.

When I’m out with three or four friends, I probably spend £40 a night on booze. I fund this by my job in a fast food outlet. That’s quite a lot of vodka, but I would also have a drink at home, maybe a half bottle of vodka, before going out. I’ve been drinking in pubs since I was 15 and it’s easy to get fake ID if an older friend looks like you.

When I was 14, I had my first drink. It was cider and I just drank at weekends. It was something to do as I was a bit bored. I am living with my granny now and doing A levels in ITT, Travel and Tourism and Politics. I’m interested in politics and went to Sinn Fein (meetings) for a bit.

Drink was part of the reason why I left home but it was really a whole lot of things. My parents asked me to cut down a bit but I didn’t pay attention.

The age of people drinking is getting younger and younger, and I know 12 and 13-year-olds who drink.

There are always kids round the off-licence, asking you to go in for them.

My rock bottom was a few months ago, when I drank too much and ended up with a stomach infection that lasted for days. It was nasty and I went to the doctor, but it didn’t make me stop. Finding Opportunity Youth has been a good thing; I think it’s changed my life. I spoke to my careers advisor at school and he took me to the doctor who referred me here. The problem with putting up the price of alcohol is that people will just pay more and loads of people will go into debt. You’d just pay more until you run out of money.

My aim is to go to university in Liverpool as a guy from John Moores came to our school and it looked good, plus there’s a good nightlife.

But at uni, the pressure to drink will be worse, and everybody thinks of students drinking too much. My other aim is to cut back. I would like to become a social drinker.”

*Not his real name

How to get help: FASA, www.fasaonline.org; DAISY Opportunity Youth, www.opportunity-youth.org , tel 028 9043 5810; Addiction NI, www.nicas.info, tel 028 9066 4434



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