When we talk to people about the problem of alcohol in Scotland, time and again the finger of blame is pointed at young people. The figures are certainly concerning – over two thirds 77 per cent of 15-year- olds in Scotland report having drunk alcohol, with one in three reporting that they have had an alcoholic drink in the past week.
Teenagers are especially vulnerable to alcohol’s damaging effects. Drinking in unsupervised locations, particularly in public places, puts children and young people at increased risk of harm. It is strongly linked to anti-social behaviour and makes them more vulnerable to becoming victims of crime. Research shows the earlier a young person starts drinking, the greater the risk that they will experience alcohol-related problems later in life. There is also growing evidence of the link between heavy drinking during adolescence and damage to teenagers’ developing brains.
So who’s to blame? Their parents? Of course parents have a vital role to play in shaping their children’s attitudes to alcohol. Cheap supermarket booze means more people are now choosing to drink at home rather than going out to the pub. Children are therefore more likely to see their parents drinking and potentially to be exposed to the negative effects of drinking too much. We need to make sure our own drinking doesn’t send out the wrong message to our kids and initiate conversations to help them understand the risks associated with alcohol. It’s certainly not helpful for parents to buy their teenager alcohol to take round to a friend’s house at the weekend, since “they’ll get their hands on alcohol anyway”. It is an offence for an adult to buy alcohol for someone under 18 but the suggestion that parents should be named and shamed is simply a distraction from alcohol policies that are supported by evidence.
Parents are part of the solution. But parents can’t control what their children see every day on TV, online, in shops, on billboards, at the football, at gigs, at the cinema – that’s controlled by an alcohol industry which ploughs millions of pounds into sophisticated marketing and PR campaigns to ensure alcohol is positioned as part of normal, everyday life.
This success can be seen in the results of recent research with primary school children who were able to recognise beer brands before popular ice cream or cake brands.
It is particularly concerning that alcohol brands are increasingly talking to young people through social networking sites, an area of alcohol marketing that is virtually unregulated.
Let’s shift the blame away from young people and their parents, and instead focus our attention on the irresponsible practices of the big alcohol producers and retailers.
Reducing the affordability, availability and marketing of alcohol will be far more effective in protecting young people from alcohol harm than any parenting or educational initiative. If we are serious about tackling underage drinking then we need to get serious about tackling these bigger issues.
• Dr Evelyn Gillan is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland