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Sad stories move us, but do they create change?

This week a distraught mother published photos of her daughter on life saving equipment after she had overdosed on alcohol. Apparently the fourteen year old girl had consumed a large amount of vodka and registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of nearly 0.3%. The girl was close to death and her mother hoped the dramatic photos would serve as a waning for young people who should stay away from alcohol and avoid drinking. This family’s situation is extremely sad and we offer our sympathy.

A similar situation arose last week when it was claimed that sending recovered drug dependent people into schools to talk to primary school children about ‘ice’ was a solution to the drug problem’. The idea –not a new one- was based on the belief that the stories of addiction and degradation would deter the children from future drug use. However international research has found that ex-drug users are not appropriate ‘educators’ and Australia’s drug education guidelines recommend the student’s usual teacher is best placed to provide effective drug education.

These cases have in common an assumption that showing young people the potential worst outcomes of alcohol and drug use will be decisive and prevent them from future drinking or drug use. Undoubtedly, the girl’s mother had the best intention, as do the former drug users, and it may be that some young people who saw the photos or heard the stories took notice.

However these attempts at ‘quick fix’ education have a poor record because the ‘scary story’ effect does not last long and it does not account for the entrenched cultural drivers of drug use. In some cases scary anti-drug campaigns have had counter-productive effect and even make drug use look attractive to young people.

We are tired of having to constantly fight the irresponsible messaging from the alcohol industry, of individual responsibility, and the lack of support from policy makers.  Leaving the rest of us to make sure that prevention activities based on the best evidence are put into practice.

We would do a better job of protecting adolescents from the dangers of drinking if we stopped the incessant alcohol marketing in public and semi-private places, including the internet and social media.

We would do a better job of protecting adolescents by ending the sponsorship of elite sport by alcohol brands. With the onset of football finals of different codes our TV screens will be bombarded with the ludicrous notion that football can only be enjoyed with a beer in hand.

We would do a better job of protecting adolescents from thinking alcohol is essential if we changed our own behaviour so alcohol was less important to our social life, and we did not always consume it at our gatherings, parties and barbecues.

We could all do a better job if alcohol companies were not given such a free reign.

Written by Geoff Munro and Julie Rae