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Taking action together on secondary supply laws

So many of us have been there. Exams are done. The shenanigans for muck-up day are sorted. A friend just turned 18 and can grab a slab of beer for us to drink on our final night of high school. This will make it a truly kick-arse celebration. In the words of Alice Cooper: School’s out for summer. School’s out forever.

Our rosy and rebellious memories of being an underage drinker during those last few days of high school fail, of course, to match up with the reality facing young people and their families today when they use alcohol. It is – and always was – much more complex.

There are real and negative health and wellbeing consequences that teenagers can experience when drinking alcohol. Their brains are still developing, and they are likely to drink more and take more risks when drinking compared to older people. This can lead to unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide, as well as damaging the brain and problems with alcohol later in life. Secondary supply laws have been developed in Australia to help address these issues and to reduce risk.

In states where secondary supply laws apply, an adult must not supply alcohol to a minor at a private place unless the adult is a parent or legal guardian of the minor, or has specific permission of the parent or guardian. They also require that any alcohol consumption by minors should be controlled by their parent, or equivalent.

Parents know well those feelings of concern for the safety of their teenage children when the parties begin in these fast and final weeks of 2015. Schoolies and alcohol are deeply entwined. Twenty-eight per cent of teenagers aged 12-17 have had a full serve of alcohol, and recent research into the drinking habits of young people heading to Schoolies indicates that they are not necessarily interested in health advice or campaigns. For those who stay behind, there are many opportunities to access alcohol as well, often unsupervised.

Despite these risks and laws in place, many people still provide alcohol to those who are under-aged in social situations, including parents. Research suggests that parents, while agreeing that secondary supply is unacceptable, are generally more concerned with focusing on relief that the evening went well or enjoyment of the social activity.

This is understandable. A number of social pressures face parents when they are organising birthdays and other events for their children: the influence of peers, making sure guests are safe, providing great food and entertainment, and also the broader media environment promoting alcohol consumption. The ongoing disconnect, however, between their genuine care for the health of their children, and prioritising a positive social experience above all else, is a reminder to be more proactive about reducing the risk of harm from alcohol for those underage.

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There are practical things parents and other adults can do in the short term to work with teenagers to reduce the risk of harm from secondary supply.

More broadly, we need to consider just how tightly adults have associated alcohol with the celebration of significant achievements in social settings. Booze is often part of how we acknowledge milestones and enjoy ourselves after a busy year with family, friends, study and work, where the deadlines have been tight and the achievements hard won. Is it any wonder teenagers celebrate similarly?

Adults can benefit from partying more safely, too. As we seek to challenge a culture of harm caused by alcohol, the very help we are looking to provide teenagers by preparing them to better manage the consumption of alcohol could similarly be applied to ourselves. Then we might learn from each other about other ways to value and find meaning in the year just passed, and how to build on this for future.