Teenage tippling: Prevalence in underage alcohol abuse rising

Parents should be more concerned - drug counsellor By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
March 20, 2002

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An increase in alcohol abuse among teenagers is not being taken seriously and cases are not referred for counselling or medical treatment, co-counsellor of the Salvation Army substance abuse programme, Steve Callender, said.

Alcohol abuse is now emerging as a major problem for school-age children in Guyana, the Caribbean and the wider world, with teenagers accounting for a high percentage of alcohol consumption.

Statistics to give an indication of the problem locally are also not available, Callender said, and the laws governing the prohibition of the sale of alcohol to minors, though archaic, are not being enforced. According to the Intoxicating Liquor Licensing Act Cap 82:21 Section 50 (1) holders of liquor licences should not allow any person under the age of 16 on their premises. Section 51 (1) states that holders of liquor licences should not sell nor allow anyone to sell intoxicating liquor to anyone under the age of 18. The fines cited for contravening these laws under both sections are $15 for the first offence and $30 for any subsequent offence.

Alcohol has been defined as a liquid generated by the fermentation of sugar or other saccharine matter and forming the intoxicating element of fermented liquors. It has also been described as a drug and a mind or mood-altering substance.

Last month, headlines across the United States publicised that American teenagers were drinking more than ever and substance-abuse activists blame weak government controls and overzealous advertisers.

According to a study published last month by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), underage drinkers account for 25 per cent of all alcohol consumed in the US, with 31% drinking even before they graduate from high school.

Several school age children and persons just out of school argued that the problem has been in the schools for some years now, but was conveniently ignored by the schools' administration and parents because of embarrassment or the fear that the school would get a bad name

An article in last month's Time magazine online edition said that researchers opted not to include any responses from children younger than 12. The survey, conducted over two years, found that more than five million high school students (or 31 per cent) binge drink at least once a month. And, for the first time ever, those numbers are equal for boys and girls. (Bingeing is defined as getting drunk repeatedly over the course of one or two days.) Forty per cent of ninth graders (male and female) admit to drinking at least occasionally, and 81 per cent of all high school students have consumed alcohol at some point.

Last week in Jamaica, the Sunday Gleaner reported that the island country saw drinking among students in and out of school as a new social problem. Often, the report said, they used adults to make purchases of alcoholic beverages from wayside vendors operating in the vicinity of the schools, or bought them directly. In Guyana, too, alcoholic beverages are also available from roadside vendors and often not far from schools.

According to the Gleaner, teachers became aware of the problem after finding students reeking of alcohol, who were more hyper or sleepy on their return from the lunch break. In a few cases students who went boozing during school hours were allowed to sleep off the effects of the alcohol before being punished.

Data gathered from one survey in Jamaica revealed a worrying "dependency problem" on alcohol by youths between the ages of 15 and 24, who now constitute the largest group of alcohol abusers, and account for about 13 per cent of the national figure of such abusers.

Risky behaviour

In Guyana, Callender lamented, the problem was serious and cases were not being reported. He said that most of the referrals for counselling on teenage alcohol abuse came mainly from Region Two (Pomeroon/Supenaam) and Region Eight (Potaro/Siparuni).

Most teenage/student referrals in the city were for the use of marijuana and to a lesser extent cocaine. "We may get one or two but not many," for alcohol abuse, Callender said.

Because alcoholic beverages and spirits are sold legally, he said, "many parents tend to overlook or do not see the danger in alcohol abuse. They seem to think it is normal. They would report drug abuse, which they tend to see as more dangerous than alcohol."

Students from some of the top schools in the country with affluent parents have been cited as being among the highest alcohol abusers because they have the money with which to procure liquor. Callender said that cases among this group tend to be covered up to avoid embarrassment, but this stymies the whole system of rehabilitation and counselling.

Underage drinking, Callender noted, leads to other risky behaviours, including unprotected sex, drunk driving, drug abuse and even suicide.

It has been reported that students tend to binge after examinations on the last day of the school term/year, at and after Christmas parties, at school and church fairs and at special events such as school athletics championships.

In a counselling session at a city school, a number of parents felt they were responsible for their teens' introduction to drinking, in addition to peer pressure to imbibe in public places. The power of advertising through the media was deemed another influencing factor.

Just recently it was reported in the local media that some students on an outing from the Zeeburg Secondary School in Region Three (West Demerara/Essequibo Islands) had been on a drinking spree after attending a career fair at the University of Guyana Turkeyen campus. One female student was said to be so drunk that she had to be helped into her home. The students had been drinking beer and vodka.

Then on Mashramani Day a number of students at a leading city school admitted to drinking a range of alcoholic beverages. However, students at another leading city school, who also had "some drinks", defended their action by saying that it was a public holiday and "our parents allow us to drink at home anyway."

'Who observes the laws?'

The owner of a liquor store told Stabroek News that school children, identified by their school uniform, would buy Banko wine and beer for Christmas and end-of-year school parties. Most times, they would say that their teachers had sent them to make the purchase. And he would sell them even though he was aware that the law made provision for owners of liquor stores not to sell minors malt liquors and spirits. "Who observes the laws?" he questioned. Occasionally, he said, an older person would send a child to buy "hard stuff" and he would then tell them to go back and tell their parents to come themselves.

Stabroek News has observed children of school age selling beer and other alcoholic beverages in family stores/beer gardens or second-class liquor stores.

Several school age children and persons just out of school argued that the problem has been in the schools for some years now, but was conveniently ignored by the schools' administration and parents because of embarrassment or the fear that the school would get a bad name. Many male and female students admitted to underage drinking, first at home then at school.

Getting beers was easy

Andrew, who attended a leading secondary school said that he started drinking at school at age 13. He drank beers. "During school sports or towards the end of the school term when study periods were given, instead of studying we [a group] would head to a shop that sold alcoholic beverages. We would take off the crests on the school uniform or some of us would wear a t-shirt under the school shirt so it would be easy to just take off the school shirt." He admitted that it would have been easy for the shopkeeper to recognise them as school children but nevertheless, he sold them the beers and they got fun out of that.

Another way of obtaining drinks easily, he recalled, was at school sports. "Teachers were supposed to monitor us students at the sports ground but vendors of 'cool-down' carts on the perimeter of the ground would sell beers." He did not feel that drinking as part of the gang was peer pressure. As far as he and the others were concerned, it was a matter of experimenting.

He even had a touch of marijuana (cannabis sativa) at school and "to me it was always around. Nobody really used it in the classroom but we would go to the cycle bay or some secret area where not even the headmaster would suspect anything. I guess it was just a phase we were passing through. None of us in my group became hooked on marijuana because we probably knew better." However, he said that he knew of three students in a higher class who became hooked on that drug and probably a harder substance. "Two of them died, one literally died in the gutter. These young men all came from well-to-do families," he said.

There were other gangs in the school whose practices were somewhat similar but to the detriment of the female students. "One particular gang lured mostly fifth formers, some fourth formers, third formers and even second formers to go on binges. From drinks one thing led to another," Andrew said. He recalled that the headmaster of his school found a female student intoxicated in the classroom in the company of six male students. "Some, if not all, were suspended from school for a period," he said.

More of a social thing

Thomas started drinking at age 15 and would drink at least once a week. "A group of us went drinking. Though not on purpose, we pressured other students in class to start drinking." Thomas said that he liked drinking because he liked "the person I become when I am drunk. I have a good time and everything is fun. I've never been drunk and depressed. Sixty per cent of drinking for me is socialising."

Thomas attended a school where narcotics "were more than available for the taking," but "that's another kettle of fish. With alcohol I know what happens to me. With alcohol I know what I am drinking, unless it is spiked. With drugs I am not sure I would know."

Steve recalled that when he was about four or six years old, his father would give him and his brothers a drink at Christmas and a puff on a cigarette and by 13 or 14, "I was drinking 'wild west' but I never drank at school or in school clothes. I never smoked at school either." Though he went to parties with his brothers and would "tear tail", today he is about the only brother who would take a puff on a cigarette every now and again and one of two who would occasionally take a drink.