Washington Post columnist, Esther J Cepeda wrote a piece, Teens exposed to more alcohol-related ads, decrying the preponderance of said marketing tactics particularly on less well-known sites which, as Dr David H Jernigan, lead author on a new study from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted are therefore “less regulated”. The article essentially said it was difficult to monitor and control what adolescents see online, but also that a lack of parental engagement must bear some of the responsibility for hazardous drinking practices.
One of my earliest memories has to do with olfaction. The faint hint of whisky on my mother’s breath as she bent to kiss me goodnight before she prepared for bed. I rarely remember stirring, so it was the sense of smell – the oldest sense – that was awakened. I don’t like the taste of whisky, but the smell is immediately comforting.
In my childhood, alcohol was all around me. On a hot day, my parents might have a beer at lunchtime on the weekends, or maybe a gin and tonic. Malarial prophylactic of the tastiest kind, and lime is of course good for scurvy! When the sun went down their chosen tipple was whisky. I would sometimes wake to little black and white plastic Scottie dogs, or a black horse, on my bedside table – testament a new bottle had been opened.
I am quite sure there were times when alcohol was over-imbibed. Why else would my father swing from a rotating fan in the mess at Poona? A decision which greatly increased his bar bill. But alcohol never adversely impacted my childhood, though I remember being soundly chastised for drinking the dregs from a glass littering the verandah after a curry lunch party. It tasted nasty and I didn’t do it again.
Fast forward a few years to my teens. I was thirteen or fourteen, when I was occasionally allowed a Dubonnet on ice – a drink my father considered suitable for “a young lady”. If we happened to be in Europe I was offered a small glass of wine.
As a result I grew up with a sense of perspective about alcohol – it was not demonised. Did I over-indulge sometimes? Absolutely. Why else would I dance on the bar at Brahms and Liszt? Though being young and with reasonably good legs in those days, I had no additions to my bar tab. Does it still happen? On rare occasions. Though I have given up dancing on bars. Can I stop drinking when I choose? Yes.
I am currently on a period of abstention. I have set no time limit. It is merely something I do every now and then, normally for a few months, to prove to myself that I can. Do I miss it? Not particularly. But I am sure I will have a glass of wine sometime in the future.
Did my children grow up with alcohol around them? I’m sure, if you’ve read this far, you know the answer. And yes, they too were allowed a drink before their majority.
The ages of majority, of license and of consent are three different things. Often, a moving number dependent on where one is living. For example, in the US the age of license for driving is 16, as is the age of consent (except in Delaware where it’s 18, with a proviso that sex is okay for 16 and 17 year olds if their partner is under 30!). The age of majority is 18, when young men and women can vote or ship off and fight for their country. But the age of license, which is essentially granting permission, as applied to alcohol is 21. It is a law which has been around in most states for about 25 years, but which has done little to reduce the number of teens drinking – breaking the law and risking a record.
The US shares that particular law with countries like Indonesia, Mongolia and a few others. Do I think it’s a ridiculous law? Yes. I am not advocating we encourage teens to drink excessively, but to simply demand abstention in either sex or alcohol is a short-sighted, unrealistic view, and one which does little to educate. The allure of the forbidden is strong, but the success of a drip-drip process of age-appropriate education is stronger.
Research by WHO (World Health Organization) has found that whilst “drinking occasions” amongst 15 and 16 year olds in Europe are greater, the levels of dangerous intoxication are less than in America. A startling US statistic reveals that “90% of all alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed during binge drinking.” Aaron White of the Duke University psychiatry department reports, “teens who drink excessively can face long-term cognitive consequences”.
I would argue it is the word ‘excessive’ and not the word ‘alcohol’ on which we need to focus. Adolescents, and neurologically adolescence lasts until 25, are able to drink far greater amounts than their elders – one of life’s ironies. An immediate consequence of binge drinking can sadly be death – either by alcohol poisoning or drunk driving; another is blacking out which can mean advantages can be taken.
We, the parents and adults, are to blame. We are not doing our young people any favours. We send them off to university or into adult life ill equipped to deal with dangled temptations. Just Say No or banning alcohol, or sex, doesn’t work. Education does. We should be educating our teens that alcohol is a depressant which slows down the brain. That their reasoning capabilities disappear with each shot, each glass, each pint and, literally before they know it, they black out.
Whilst I don’t agree with targetting young people with advertisements for alcohol, perhaps we should use them to start the conversation. Like most things a sense of proportion, or perspective, is often only gained with age. We can though give that process a head start, through education and sensible laws.
And now it’s time for the demon drink – ginger beer!