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Our gift to our children: alcoholism

Alcohol disinhibits the parts of the brain that control thoughts, feelings and behaviour; that’s why adults drink.

Of course, most of us view this less technically in terms of “relaxing” and “enjoying ourselves”. And in most cases, that’s what it lets us do. Yet alcohol’s extraordinary ability to disinhibit other adult impulses is well documented. In Scotland, which has the UK’s highest drink-related death rate, a huge proportion of violent crime is linked to alcohol abuse. One Glasgow study found that two-thirds of those arrested for violent offences were under the influence.

Given the role drink plays in the spoilt and anti-social behaviour of adults, there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t also help our children to behave badly. But the effects on the young are more fundamental: when children and teenagers drink, the disinhibition that takes place does so at a point when their brains and behaviours are still undergoing crucial development of the ability to control impulses. In adolescents who drink regularly, parts of the brain important in emotional and impulse control have been found to be smaller. In fact, alcohol plays a role in preventing teenagers from developing self-control when they are sober, because their brain hardware is underdeveloped.

When children drink, they are not only being allowed to do something which is viewed primarily as an adult “privilege”,they are also relinquishing control of their thoughts, feelings and behaviour, with the blessing of adults. By the time they are 16, many, if not most, teenagers feel entitled to drink and get drunk. And they are learning that an abdication of responsibility is acceptable when they are relaxed or “tipsy”, provided “it’s the drink talking”. Allowing children to be under the influence with our consent offers them mixed messages about self-control and personal accountability at a time when they need a clear, unambiguous one. And driving a teenager to a pub, or buying alcoholic drinks for their unchaperoned party, supports them in disregarding rules and the law, with the unintended effect of undermining authority, including that of parents.

There is a general belief that the early introduction of “responsible” drinking at home will prevent heavy drinking later. And because drinking is an integral part of adult life, we feel uneasy when this comfortable, “sensible” view is challenged. However, research shows that British children are more likely to get drunk than those of any other country, and our 15 and 16-year-olds are among the worst binge drinkers in Europe, with direct effects on their relationships with their parents. In Scotland, where 1500 people die each year because of alcohol, the effects of binge drinking are being observed at an earlier and earlier age. During a five-week period in 2006, nearly 650 children aged between eight and 15 were treated in A&E departments for alcohol-related problems.

The long-term consequences are worrying. “The younger they drink,” says Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, “the more likely they are to have alcohol-related problems later in life. It is now commonplace to see men and women in their 20s with end-stage alcoholic liver damage.”

Compared with our approach to drink, Britain’s attitude towards drugs is priggish. Politicians worry about journalists asking if they ever “inhaled” as students, but most would be embarrassed to be accused of having been stone-cold sober throughout their university years. Adults love alcohol and governments collect extraordinary levels of sin tax from it, while at the same time pointing to drugs as the greatest menace to our children. But alcohol always has been, and continues to be, by far our children’s greatest drug problem. In a list of the 20 most dangerous popular drugs, a study in the Lancet ranked alcohol at number five – far higher than ecstasy, LSD, solvents, amphetamines and cannabis.

While much debate surrounds sex education, few people understand the enormous role that alcohol plays in sexual behaviour. This is extraordinary when you consider that few male parents, teachers and politicians have not used alcohol strategically to get their leg over. And alcohol is consistently held responsible for greatly increasing the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The latest misguided exaggeration is directed towards the witch hunt for “spiked” drinks and “date-rape” drugs. Yet medical studies of blood and urine samples from young females attending hospital A&E departments who claimed their drinks had been spiked with date-rape drugs, concluded: “No-one tested positive for rohypnol or GHB. The symptoms are more likely to be a result of excess alcohol.” We seem to find it hard to accept the obvious: that drinks do not have to be spiked with drugs for women to be drugged and date-raped, and that alcohol has always been a highly effective date-rape drug in its own right.

Obviously, the other part of this equation is that boys’ libido, along with their impulse control, is powerfully disinhibited when they’re drunk before that impulse control is fully formed. They are more likely to rape, or be falsely accused of either that or sexual assault, if they have been drinking.

Despite the direct links between alcohol and problematic behaviour, the penny has only recently begun to drop. Even some doctors and nurses have been carried along with the assumption that the best way to prevent youngsters from drinking heavily – and behaving badly as a result – is to teach them to drink while they are children. This assumption has been heavily promoted by educational bodies that appear to be impartial but are, in fact, funded by the drinks industry, and are well-versed in the comfy speak of teaching children “sensible” or “responsible” drinking.

We don’t recommend early, sensible dope-smoking to prevent later drug abuse, early cigarette-smoking to prevent later nicotine addiction or early sexual encounters to prevent unwanted pregnancy. But where alcohol is concerned, we seem to be thinking under the influence. A study commissioned by the Department For Children, Schools And Families describes the myth regarding the benefits of the Continental approach to introducing children gradually to alcohol as unhelpful, adding: “The misperceptions are firmly based on opinion rather than from health statistics about mainland Europe. Parents … are searching for any logic that helps them maintain their own drinking whilst protecting their children.”

Many parents just can’t say “no”, and – wrongly – feel that they can’t say: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Yet one of the most fundamental differences between a parent and child is that a parent can do things that a child cannot: parent and child are not equal. Although parents may delude themselves that they are giving their children a more responsible cosmopolitan and sophisticated approach to alcohol, it is worth noting that France’s death rate from cirrhosis of the liver is actually twice the UK’s. A European Commission fact sheet on the subject says that “liver cirrhosis is caused by long-term excessive drinking by individuals, regardless of their drinking patterns”. The point being that while “binge drinking” may be one particularly anti-social British route to health damage, even the slow, stylish Continental way will get you there. No wonder the organisation Alcohol Concern has called for parents who give alcohol to children under 15 to be prosecuted.

A recent paper in the British Journal Of Psychiatry says “urgent action is needed” to prevent “an under-recognised, alcohol-related … dementia time-bomb”. Yet the myth persists that introducing children to alcohol earlier prevents heavy drinking and alcoholism later. While many believe that children benefit from the role-modelling and restraint displayed at the family dinner table, they have not considered the biochemical processes at work. Exposure to alcohol at an early age is likely to increase the chances of a child becoming a heavy drinker. A study from the

US government’s National Institute On Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism found that having a first taste of alcohol before age 15 sharply increased the risk of alcohol-use disorders that persist into adulthood. The researchers believe it is important to delay the “age of first drink” as long as possible. A young brain is very malleable and changes quickly in response to new influences; it’s suspected that early exposure may “prime” the brain to enjoy alcohol by creating a link between it and pleasurable reward.

The UK’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson recommends that parents do not allow their children to consume alcohol at all – even at home – until they are at least 15. This advice comes in stark contrast to the current law: the UK legal drinking age for a child is five, so long as they are in a home setting and under adult supervision.

I continue to come across apparently considerate and intelligent parents who actually supply “only wine and lager, but of course not any spirits because that’s too strong”, for their 16-year-old children’s parties. Many talk of peer pressure, saying their children claim that all their 14- or 15-year-old friends’ parents supply alcohol at their birthday parties, adding: “If you don’t let me give my friends drinks at my party, they won’t come.” In one case the parents went out for the evening so as not to get in the way of the fun, only to be called back at midnight because their daughter was lying drunk and unconscious in a pool of vomit. There have also been occasions when I’ve rung up parents regarding my 15-year-old daughter spending the night at their home, only to be told: “The kids aren’t here right now – they’ve gone on a pub crawl.” I’ve never had any support from parents in trying to prevent 15-year-old girls either from going on pub crawls or being left at home with booze supplied by parents. And I’ve been made to feel like a priggish killjoy.

We need to take a cold, hard, detached look at the cultural background that prevents us from protecting children from alcohol. This won’t be easy, partly because most of us are too close to the subject matter. So uncool and anally retentive is it considered to be a non-drinker, it’s akin to spending Friday night in the library – or in church, God forbid. There has to be something wrong with you if you don’t want to drink. And this conformity is supported by the most eclectic orgy-sized group of bedfellows, from the radical student unionists in their subsidised university bars to the House of Commons, where MPs have a choice of 12 bars subsidised by us taxpayers and where, apparently, when Peter Mandelson resigned for the second time, “the bar ran out of champagne”.

To an enlightened-puritan American like me, who is more accustomed to healthy political pastimes involving Bill Clinton, kneeling women and “inappropriate relationships” without a single drink being involved, discovering that many MPs had to be dragged drunk from House of Commons bars in order to vote on matters of national importance is stranger than a Monty Python sketch.

The problem with conducting a sober discussion about the role of alcohol in our children’s socialisation is that Britain’s heart simply isn’t in it, so great is the nation’s affection for the silly sauce. When Ben Kinsella, brother of the EastEnders actress, was stabbed to death in London last year, causing an outcry over knife crime, society didn’t ask why a 16-year-old boy was in a pub at 2am. It seemed to be a cultural norm: people couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

Parents and other adults in authority need to be aware that their favourite drug and social lubricant may have new-found consequences when children indulge in it. Recent evidence makes it abundantly clear that parents should not allow their children to consume alcohol at all until they are at least 15. We need a single legal drinking age, even if it is unenforceable. This will send a new message to parents and society about what is good for children, and make it easier to exert authority over those who feel entitled to drink.

In the US, politicians have been willing to forgo the tremendous amount of sin tax they would get from alcohol sales by raising the national minimum age for buying alcohol to 21. Many states don’t even allow under-21s to enter off-licences or bars, and some don’t let them drink anywhere, including at home.

In Scotland, government plans to raise the minimum age for buying from off-sales have been watered down, so that local licensing boards are obliged merely to “consider” whether alcohol problems in their warrant raising the age to 21. However, Glasgow, the country’s biggest licensing board, said the legislation isn’t strong enough and the Scottish parliament has called for a full debate as part of the forthcoming alcohol bill.

Certainly, current legislation – which allows five-year-olds to drink alcohol at home, and underage teenagers to sit in pubs where older teenagers can easily buy them drinks – leaves too much room for confusion and manoeuvre, and children often feel entitled to be irritated when asked for proof of age. Shop signs saying, “Please do not be offended if we ask for proof of age when you buy alcohol” should be changed to: “You MUST prove you are over 18 or we will not sell you alcohol. Furthermore, if you try to buy it anyway, we’ll call the police and beg them to arrest, jail and prosecute you.”

Many physicians and researchers, including the government’s own chief medical officer, now strongly believe that the government must raise the price of alcohol as a disincentive for both children and adults to buy it.

From now on, we – parents, teachers and policy-makers alike – must be especially aware of where our information about alcohol education comes from: sadly, most of it is the product of vested interests. We should raise our glasses to child sobriety, thus helping to remove one of the obstacles from our ability to parent with authority. It’s high time we exorcised the Devil’s buttermilk from our children’s development.

source: Herald Scotland

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