The first time I got drunk, I was fifteen years old. It was a Friday night, my friend’s parents were away for the weekend and a group of us packed up for an overnight stay.
As most teenage events go, it was far from glamorous. We sat around the kitchen table, drinking full glasses of Malibu. Warm, dark liquor that I’ve yet to drink again.
Despite making big promises to ourselves, the whole evening boiled down to a few hours of mindless dancing and giggling, sharing a secret or two and a couple of trips to the bathroom sink.
Yet in our minds it was a special occasion. A rite of passage that we all shared. Someone even kept the bottle.
Mine is not an uncommon experience. According to recent statistics, 15 years is still the average age for young women to start drinking.
We do it to have a good time. To join in and to be accepted. As we get older, it becomes a self-confidence booster and a big part of having a great night out. For many it’s even stress relief.
Not many of these reasons are healthy justifications for drinking alcohol, but they’re real. And here’s how we need to address the policy making.
Alcohol is an accepted part of having a social life. For that reason alone I think young women will always be drawn to it. But I also accept that we need to think better about how we use alcohol in Australian life. I understand it is responsible for significant health and social costs and that we need to reshape our alcohol behaviour for the good of this and future generations.
So how do we do this? Here are five suggestions:
1. Effective policy making in this area needs to be “real”. That starts with accepting the reasons why young women drink alcohol and meeting them at their level. We need to ask questions about when and why they choose to drink. What they choose to drink. How much they think is safe to drink and how much they know about dealing with things when they go horribly wrong.
2. Focus on self-confidence and self-esteem. Never underestimate the power of alcohol as a social lubricant. Young women want to be both well liked and to feel good about themselves. Having a drink can seem like an easy way to achieve both these things in the right social situation. Good policy needs to express a good understanding of this.
3. Young women need a strong role model. There is no point addressing this demographic from a lofty or stuffy position. Find someone who talks their language. Like a woman, under the age of thirty, who is prepared to talk about alcohol and growing up, in a real way. That means being willing to accept that alcohol and social situations go hand in hand, but also being honest enough to reveal the horrible and dangerous sides. They also need to be calm. Terrifying or threatening anyone gets you nowhere.
4. Put calorie guides on packaging. Self-esteem and body image go hand in hand for young women. Maybe even all women. Putting on weight is a huge concern for this demographic. While it’s irresponsible to “play” on this in an emotional way, the power of calories is a strong deterrent, from anything. Displaying the calorie content of alcoholic drinks on each bottle could be a good start.
5. Educate about long-term effects. I’m now in my mid-30s. Several women I know now experience prolonged periods of anxiety after and during a hangover. For many it has become enough to put them off drinking for good. The long-term effects of heavy drinking on your life, memory and ability to cope without it need to be better explained to younger women.