Monday, March 17, 2008

The battle of the bottle

1. What is binge drinking?

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd believes Australia's binge drinking culture has reached "epidemic proportions". Binge drinking is the dangerous practice of consuming high levels of alcohol, often to "get drunk". Heavy drinking in short periods is increasingly common and socially acceptable among teenagers and young adults.

The National Health and Medical Research Council says there is no safe amount of alcohol for under-ge drinkers. Last year, the council set new safe drinking guidelines for Australian adults, advising them to limit their drinking to two standard drinks a day - a standard drink contains about 10 grams of alcohol. Teenagers and pregnant women are advised to refrain from drinking completely.

As the teenager brain is yet to reach maturity, it is particularly vulnerable to long-term and irreversible brain damage from alcohol. The American Medical Association says adolescents need only drink half as much as adults to suffer learning and memory impairment. Research shows one in every 10 Australian teenagers between 12 and 17 binge drinks every week. Health authorities warn that as the age of "the first drink" plummets to early adolescence, the risk of addiction and severe health problems increases. There are fears the nation could be drinking itself to death, with an average of 10 Australians dying each day from alcohol related causes.

2. Why is binge drinking a concern?

Binge drinking has severe health effects, from brain damage to learning and memory problems. Binge drinkers are also more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour such as unsafe or unwanted sex, illegal drug taking, vandalism and drink driving. In extreme circumstances, binge drinking can result in coma and death. An increase in violence in Melbourne's CBD - which has resulted in many serious injuries - has also been blamed on binge drinking.

Long-term binge drinking can lead to addiction, cancer, liver problems, heart attack and brain injury. Alcohol is the second biggest contributor to chronic disease in Australia, after smoking. Alcohol abuse also wastes valuable medical resources. Every year, 72,000 Australians are admitted to hospital because of risky alcohol consumption. In Victoria, alcohol-related emergency department admissions have jumped 35% in five years.

The economic impact of alcohol is also significant. In 2004-05, alcohol cost Australia an estimated $15.3 billion a year, through crime, violence, treatment, loss of productivity and premature death.

3. What is the solution?

Prime Minister Rudd has announced a $53 million national program aimed at cleaning up the binge drinking culture across all generations. The plan includes $20 million on shock "in-your-face" advertising, similar to anti-smoking and the TAC road safety campaigns. The government will spend $19.1 million on education and early intervention programs for teenagers, and is considering restricting advertising.

Mr Rudd is also concerned by the relationship between binge drinking and sport. Surveys show 13% of 18 to 20-year-olds drank 13 or more standard drinks when they visited sporting clubs. He has set aside $14.4 million to help sporting clubs develop drinking codes of conduct. Clubs which do not enforce codes face missing out on government grants and funding.

Others have called on the alcohol industry and parents to take responsibility for teenage binge drinking. Some have suggested raising the legal drinking age to 21, as is common in the United States.

VicHealth wants the number of venues supplying alcohol limited. The number of liquor licences in Victoria has risen from about 4000 in 1986 to more than 19,000 in 2004. VicHealth also says tougher regulations are needed on marketing tactics for pre-mixed drinks or ready-to-drink beverages, which it claims are deliberately targeted at teenagers. These popular drinks are sweet and sugary like soft drinks, have bright and colourful packaging, are alcohol-laden and cheap.

Meanwhile, the Australian Drug Foundation believes there should be new laws to prosecute parents who give alcohol to other people's children at teenage parties.

source: The Age

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