0-19: Comment

Teenagers have always experimented with alcohol. It is part of
the growing up process, trying things out and rebelling against
parental restraints. But recent evidence from both England and
Scotland suggests that more adolescents are binge-drinking and with
increasing frequency.

Alcohol is a psychoactive drug and poison: it acts on the brain
to alter behaviour as well as on the liver, heart and blood vessels
leading to such conditions as cirrhosis and heart attacks.

Binge-drinking can lead to fatalities as the effects on the
brain suppress the cough reflex and individuals can drown in their
own vomit as it is inhaled into the lungs. Even if taken in
non-fatal quantities, alcohol removes inhibitions and reason and
makes the individual more prone to excessive behaviour.

The long-term effects of alcohol are much worse if consumed in
large quantities (as in binge-drinking) even if only done
infrequently. The liver can cope with a regular intake of moderate
amounts of alcohol and, indeed, can increase its capacity to handle
alcohol if taken regularly and in reasonable quantities. It is much
better to follow the “little and often” line that actually leads to
health benefits.

How then do we educate young people to drink responsibly and not
indulge in the dangerous binge-drinking seen on our streets

I believe the key lies in the word “educate” – not in a school
sense but in the family setting, where most of the education for
life should take place. Where better to introduce, at an early age,
the drinking of alcohol in a safe social setting?

We should do what is done in France, Spain and Italy, and other
enlightened European countries: give children wine (diluted with
water) with their meal, and allow children to drink alcohol with
their parents when out for a meal in a restaurant or pub. This
shows the children that alcohol is not something special; it is not
a forbidden, adult-only form of indulgence that they are prohibited
from using until they are 18.

France, Spain and Italy do not seem to have binge-drinking
cultures whereas Sweden and Finland do. Both Sweden and Finland
have strict alcohol policies – the purchasing of wine and spirits
in Sweden being restricted to state-controlled shops.

So is there a correlation here? I believe so. Prohibition does
not work – look at the problems caused during the Prohibition era
in the US when alcohol was driven underground into the hands of the
criminal classes.

Our teenagers see alcohol as something forbidden. This leads to
it being elevated to an almost cult status. But it also drives it
underground – the culture now is for young people to obtain a large
supply of cheap alcohol and find somewhere to drink it, such as a
friend’s house or the street corner.

Once drunk, the individuals are capable of extreme behaviour
having been stripped of their inhibitions and reason.
Alcohol-fuelled antisocial behaviour then becomes the norm.

The way to reverse the trend towards binge-drinking and the
accompanying social and health problems is to alter the way we
present alcohol to young people.

Let’s get alcohol into a safe social setting, allow children to
take alcohol in the company of their parents in restaurants and
pubs. Let’s educate them on how to drink alcohol responsibly – and
do this from an early age.

This will not change teenage culture overnight but we must make
a start now before the next generation hits the streets.

Dr Paul Skett is deputy head of neuroscience and
biomedical systems at the Institute of Biomedical and Life
Sciences, Glasgow University.

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