Our apathy towards alcohol harm is doing our children and young people a great disservice

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WE should be striving to give children and young people every opportunity we can, including the opportunity to have fun and enjoy their formative years.

Those of us who no longer have it will quickly point out to those still in possession of their youth – who will listen to us – that the freedom to have fun gets more than a little restricted when all of the responsibilities and realities of adult life inevitably start to make their presence felt.

However, we also have a duty of care to ensure that children and young people have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and to be healthy, happy, and safe. We have allowed alcohol to take such a prominent place in growing up in Ireland that we are doing them a great disservice.

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to alcohol harm, as their bodies and brains are still developing. Far from being a rite of passage, drinking alcohol can delay the development of vital coping, personal and social skills; project young people into risky situations, and lay the ground-work for future physical and mental health difficulties.

Despite this, there is a consistent trend for binge drinking among young Irish people and when they consume large volumes of alcohol they are also putting themselves in immediate danger, not just in terms of their health, but also the poor decision-making, accidents, and other forms of risky behaviour that we know go hand-in-hand with binge drinking, including suicide and self-harm.

Alcohol use continues to move further into childhood and for the past 20 years Irish girls have also been drinking as much as their male counterparts, even though they experience greater health risks from alcohol and the onset of alcohol-related health problems begins earlier.

For many, ’pre-drinking’ is simply an exercise in drinking to get drunk and its growing prevalence is due in no small part to the explosion in the number of outlets selling alcohol at very cheap prices in the off-trade in recent years, particularly supermarkets, where cans of strong beer cost less than bottles of water.

Young people, who generally have the least disposable income, are heavily influenced by price and tend to buy the cheapest, strongest alcohol products – those which allow them to get drunk as quickly as possible for as little money as possible.

However, there is nothing to be gained by pointing the finger at young people, who generally model their drinking behaviour on the attitudes and actions of the adults they see around them. They are also heavily influenced by alcohol marketing, which is a constant presence in their life, encouraging them to drink alcohol through a wide variety of positive, risk-free messages and sophisticated marketing campaigns, reassuring them that it is central to enjoying life, popularity, sporting prowess and a seemingly endless list of desirable traits.

When it comes to drinking, young people are, in many ways, a product of their environment and we have created an environment for them that is saturated with alcohol, one in which drinking to harmful levels are effectively normalised and often celebrated.

Our apathy towards our harmful drinking and the fall-out from it is continuing to ensure that many young Irish people will never fulfill their potential and, tragically, that some will never even get the opportunity to try.

A piece written by Conor Cullen, head of communications and advocacy at Alcohol Action Ireland, for today’s feature on harmful alcohol consumption in the Irish Daily Mail.