Too much teen spirit

Teenagers drink too much. But how to curb them, in a society awash with alcohol?
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The Independent Culture
There is no evidence that my 16-year-old son is keen on housework, so when he declared that he had spent an hour cleaning the bathroom I said I was impressed.

"I haven't been polishing the taps or anything like that," he explained. "I've been wiping Martin's vomit off the walls. It was disgusting. I'm not having him to a party again."

Ben had had the house to himself and some friends for the night and the bathroom had been one of the casualties. This rite of passage for both of us could be interpreted in several ways. A valuable learning experience for Ben, seeing the effects of binge drinking all too close up, possibly a warning to his younger brother Jack, and to us as irresponsible parents, letting children run wild.

The dilemmas around how best to handle children and drink have been brought into sharp focus by the report that teenage alcohol consumption has increased by 40 per cent in the last five years. The likes of Ben and Jack are apparently drinking three more units a week than their predecessors were in 1993, and a third of them drink at home without the parents knowing. What's needed, say the experts, is more education. But, as I discovered, this can be hard to come by.

I called the NUS, who declared that they were certainly on the case as far as student drinking was concerned. Why, only last year they had run a campaign that involved dishing out glasses and posters to all universities with the logo 2F3M4. This was to remind students that the sensible daily amount for females was two units and for males, three to four. Wasn't it true, I asked, that the best way to reduce consumption was to raise prices? And didn't the NUS run subsidised bars? "Er, yes," admitted a slightly flustered spokesperson. "But the prices are not so much lower that anyone would be encouraged to go bananas."

So was there any evidence that the posters and mugs were having any effect? "We don't keep any information like that," I was told. "We just act as a conduit. The people you need to talk to are Drinkline. They run a help line and do all the research." But a call to Drinkline was no more enlightening. "I'm afraid we are about to close," said another harassed- sounding spokesperson. "Drinkline is out to tender."

So I turned to see what was being done in America, where concern and consumption rates are similar. For instance, a recent study by the Harvard School of Public health showed that 70 per cent of students at some college campuses "binge drink" - defined as having five drinks in a row for males, and four for females. This compares with The Lancet's 1996 survey which found excessive and binge drinking among 50 per cent of students. Interestingly, among non-white UK students only 3 per cent drank heavily. A study by the marvellously named American organisation Madd (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) estimated that half of schoolchildren drink.

There's no shortage of research to suggest we should be alarmed by this torrent of booze disappearing down teenage throats. Take the physical effects. While processing alcohol - at the rate of one hour per drink for a 160-lb adult male - the liver can't do its normal job of releasing stored energy. So you get tired. Your liver is threatened because there is more iron in your blood, and you won't be building bone and muscle at the rate you should. What's more, drinking regularly means you will be extracting fewer vitamins from your meals, at a time when you're not only growing, but are probably eating badly anyway.

"Boring," retort the 16-year-olds clutching cans of larger outside a football ground, who rightly believe in their own immortality. What may make more of an impression is the finding that alcohol causes an increase in oestrogen levels in men and testosterone levels in females. Even in these politically correct times, becoming more of a girl if you are a boy, and vice versa, are generally viewed with alarm.

But research findings have an uncomfortable way of cutting both ways. In several American reports the following facts are cited as damning evidence against alcohol: "Adolescents who reported misusing alcohol were likely to engage in early sexual activity, multiple partners, and unprotected intercourse 6.1 to 23.0 times more than young people who did not misuse alcohol." Such behaviour is, of course, terribly irresponsible, but I can't help feeling the statistic may not have the deterrent effect it is supposed to.

British calls for more education seem to fall on deaf ears. There is provision for education on alcohol in the national curriculum, but experts admit that implementation is patchy. My informal research confirmed it. Ben commented: "We were told about drinking at school, but it was a long time ago and I can't remember what was said." Sulla, a 20-year-old at Nottingham University, remarked: "Sure we all get drunk. There are cut- price drinks for students somewhere in town every night, but I've never seen any material about sensible drinking."

The budgets of those concerned about teenage drinking are minuscule compared with the vast coffers of the alcohol industry. How can a few posters with silly logos compete with glossy ads that pretend drinking vodka is like having an LSD trip, or news stories about footballing heroes getting out of it?

In the US, with more money - the Office of Alcohol and Other Substances has a $20m grant - and a stronger puritan tradition, there is rather more direct action. Sadd (Students Against Destructive Decisions) has got "young people at more than 16,000 schools fighting alcohol abuse and drink-driving." One of their posters reads: "If you are going to Drink and Drive, then be sure to kiss your mother goodbye." In a recent announcement Osap (Office of Substance Abuse Prevention), which vets information packs that go out to schools, demanded: "... materials recommending a designated driver be rated unacceptable. They encourage heavy alcohol use by implying it is OK to drink to intoxication as long as you don't drive." Some universities now have limits on the amount of alcohol that can be brought on to campus, enforced with $50 and $100 fines. The claim is that this cuts the number of binge drinkers in half.

Some American campaigners say that a price hike is the simplest and most effective way to reduce heavy drinking. But it turns out not to be so simple. A study two years ago concluded: "the drinking practices of male college students are generally insensitive to the price of beer [but] under-age drinking and drinking by female students do respond significantly to price." Interestingly, while males cut back on binge drinking when tough drink-driving laws are enforced, females do not.

Given that our society is awash with alcohol, we can hardly expect teenagers not to experiment, and the long-term effects are uncertain. Some campaigners claim that heavy drinking as a teenager predicts problems as an adult, while The Lancet is more circumspect: "It remains unclear whether university students' lifestyles are carried over into later life." There undoubtedly can be health problems, but who is most likely to be affected?

For what it's worth, my own view is that teenagers have to learn to negotiate their relationship with alcohol just as they do with the opposite sex, shopping and work. Most will make it OK, but a few will run into problems. Whatever happens, though, by the time they really need it, they won't take much notice of your advice. The best you can do is keep a loving connection with them.

The Portman Group, an alcohol research institution funded by the industry, produced a booklet for parents last year that advised being relaxed with your children over alcohol, being honest about the pleasures and the risks and letting them try small amounts at home. Ben agreed that he was all in favour of parents telling kids about drink: "For instance, does chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon go with lobster, and what are the vintage years?"

How to tell if something's wrong

If your child does have a problem with alcohol, he or she may not admit it. Here are some questions that, if answered honestly, can reveal whether help is needed:

Do you feel uncomfortable when alcohol isn't available?

Do you ever miss school, work, or social activities because of alcohol?

Do you spend much time hung over?

Do you drink more than usual when you're under pressure?

Do you binge drink?

Do you ever feel guilty about drinking?

Do you resent it when people talk about your drinking?

Have you ever been unable to remember parts of the evening before?

Organisations to contact: The Portman Group (0171-499 1010); Alcohol Concern (0171-928 7377); Drinkline Youth National helpline (0345 320202 - while it remains open)