Youth Month calls us to reflect both on the historic debt we owe previous generations of young people who fought for our freedom and on the challenge of breathing hope and self-belief into the hearts of the current generation.
The debate, quite rightly, centres on skills and jobs for young people in order to enable them to enjoy a better life than previous generations. But we cannot afford to neglect social ills that also erode the quality of life of our youth – among them the widespread use of alcohol by people under the age of 18, and a society that not only tolerates this but, in some instances, enables it.
The issue is not whether it is morally right or wrong for adolescents and teenagers to drink. The fact is that it is damaging to their bodies and endangers lives.
The effect of alcohol on the brain is more marked among adolescents, largely because brains are not yet mature – drinking alcohol before that could affect their rational planning and decision-making. There is also some evidence that young people may get fewer warning signals that their blood-alcohol level is high.
Heavy and binge drinking further run the risk of damaging the brains of young people, which may show shrinkage in some areas and impaired communication within the brain.
In addition, young people are greater risk takers than older people. In South Africa, about 12% of all deaths are due to “non-natural causes” – that is, accidents and violence. This figure rises to 44% in the age group 15 - 19 years (StatsSA 2018).
Therefore, while excessive consumption of alcohol in all age groups could lead to poor decision making with grave results – such as road traffic injuries or death, interpersonal violence, and unsafe sex, in young people, there is a greater chance of risk-taking. None of these impacts is fleeting; the harm done may be irreversible or last a lifetime.
In the face of these considerable risks, alcohol consumption among our youth is widespread. While research is dated, it suggests that about one in three South Africans aged 14 – 17 years consumes alcohol in South Africa.
The roots of under-age drinking are tangled. The effort to combat the problem needs to be wide and strongly cohesive. In short, what is needed in South Africa is a “whole-of-society” approach that has succeeded in countries that have embraced it and applied it consistently. This requires strong leadership to build and hold together working partnerships among role players who are not always natural allies. It demands of the partners the maturity to work together.
Aware.org, a harm reduction body fully funded by the alcohol Industry has a zero tolerance to under-age drinking and has embarked on a national behavioural change programme to address the drivers of under-age drinking. Its interventions work directly with school learners through a combination of in-school and after-school recreational programmes. To further augment these interventions the organisation will soon be expanding into gamification and popular programming to mobilise and motivate an “all of society” attack on under-age drinking.
While this is a step in the right direction, we need additional role players with the insight, resources and – in some instances – the authority to partner in the fight against under-age drinking. We need:
- Informative and enabling programmes that raise awareness and education about the risks of under-age drinking – targeting not only the under 18s but influential role models such as teachers, peers, parents and communities.
- Much stronger enforcement of zero tolerance of the sale of alcohol to anyone under the age of 18.
- Investment in quality, fun, recreational youth programmes that offer them positive role models, beneficial life skills and keep them stimulated to prevent them to turning to alcohol.
- Better access to support for families who are suffering from mental illness and misusing alcohol as a way to escape harsh realities.
For some role players the participation of a body funded by the liquor industry is problematic. They argue that the industry is the cause of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. But the industry believes it is precisely because underage drinking is a clear instance of the misuse of its products that it has a duty to help eradicate under-age drinking.
As the month of reflection and action comes to a close, the call for unity echoes louder than ever. Let us stand together, a society determined to shatter the darkness of underage drinking. Our youth deserve an environment where hope is nurtured, dreams are safeguarded, and potential flourishes untarnished. The road ahead is arduous, but as we merge efforts, channeling education, enforcement, support, and role models, we inch closer to an enlightened future. This Youth Month, we vow to cast aside shadows and empower our youth to rise, unburdened by the weight of underage alcohol consumption. The journey is long, but our united commitment ensures that the light we ignite today will shine resiliently for generations to come.
About the author: Carmen Mohapi is the CEO of Aware.org, a non-governmental organisation funded by the alcohol industry and is dedicated to reducing the harmful use of alcohol and promoting responsible drinking. AWARE is keen to help scale up South Africa’s harm-reduction effort so that it makes a positive difference to the nation’s health, wellbeing, and safety.