“Every day a child in WA is so desperately drunk that someone calls an ambulance. Our kids drink at even earlier ages and drink to get drunk. Eighty per cent of the alcohol they drink is consumed in ways that put their health, and that of others, at risk of acute harm,” says Professor Mike Daube, Director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth (MCAAY) at Curtin University.
With the alcohol industry spending over half a billion dollars a year promoting their product, coupled with accessible prices, young teens are engulfed by the drinking binge.
“You can get wine at less than $2 a litre, so alcohol is cheaper than water,” says Mike.
MCAAY, aims to reduce the alarming levels of alcohol related issues and dangerous drinking among young people, by making an impact on public policy, public attitudes and behavioural change.
Binge and underage drinking is a national phenomenon with WA greatly affected, partly because it is a younger state than most.
We are now considered to be a more affluent society that gives young people more freedom.
The notion of one parent at home, one working with a 9-5 regime and the kids around the house as it was thirty years ago has changed, explains Mike.
A comprehensive approach with acts on price, availability, tough liquor licence controls, curbs on alcohol promotion, public/school education and media campaigns, are the wide range of strategies Mike suggests in combating the issue.
“It’s a combination of price and that’s in two parts. One is increasing price, but also simply sorting out the current dysfunctional tax system that we have, where some forms of alcohol are just cheaper than others. What we want to see is what’s called volumetric tax. Volumetric is content based, the higher the alcohol content, the more expensive it should be, with special consideration for any produce considered especially harmful.” Along with this, Mike would like to see constraints on third party supply, as is done with other states to ensure supplying alcohol to a minor is made illegal.
“Products being produced for kids such as alcopops, I mean who else are they being produced for? Raspberry flavoured alcopops aren’t being produced for 55 year olds. It’s accessible and so gradually the binge drinking culture which is people kids especially drinking to get drunk and along with that things like pre-loading.”
It’s monitoring, enforcement and increasing the drinking age to 21 that Mike believes is fundamental.
“The police do not currently have the powers to conduct operations. If the health department want to conduct a sting operation for tobacco they can do it, the Health Act lets them. The police don’t have that power for alcohol. Just a few exemplarily prosecutions would make quite a bit of difference,” he says.
Research suggests the direct link between alcohol, crime and mental health problems causes both acute, long term health and social problems in teens.
“The police commissioner tells us that 70 per cent of the police operational budget goes to alcohol issues and that’s massive.” As a result affecting the force financially, restricting time spent on particular tasks/issues and emotionally.
“It’s not just police, its emergency service/departments, its social work. Every day one person aged 18 or younger, some as young as 12 are so drunk that they are admitted to an emergency department in WA.”
But its schools, he says that play a pivotal role in educating students about topics such as alcohol, drugs, obesity, tobacco, mental health, sexual health, injury prevention and road safety.
“What we know is that the best school health education is sustained long term by trained teachers usually by with whom the students are familiar. All too often it’s done as a one off visit.”
“In WA, yes, schools are supposed to provide two hours a week in HPE, but nobody actually surveys to see what’s being done, or by whom, or how good it is or how well trained the people are doing it are,” he added.
Although he explains high calibre programs are taught in some schools, quality HPE across the board cannot be guaranteed.
In comparison to our performance with other states, Mike is uncertain as to where WA sits in the ladder, as there are no surveys to reveal just what is going on.
“Until about 1995 there was an organisation called The Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation Inc. (ACHPER) which did surveys of WA schools to find out what was going on. They stopped doing that, the Education Department doesn’t do it, and nobody actually knows what’s going on.”
With next year’s imminent release of the new K-10 national curriculum, phase three which includes HPE, is considered to be somewhat lacking.
“The first two tiers of the new national curriculum are the ones that really count numeracy, literacy, languages, the arts, the things all kids have which is mandatory. The arts are wonderful, I’m a great sport of the arts, so I’m not knocking that, but I would argue very strongly that health and physical education should be in there as well.
“At the moment it’s in the third tier, that means it not mandatory. That also means...it’s an absolute lottery as to whether your kid is getting that or not and what’s also important is that the teachers who are doing that, will not get as much support in terms of resources and training.”
“I’m also conscious that schools can’t solve all our problems and I think that teachers have enough pressures on them. I don’t think it’s the job of the teacher to find the spot in the working week. It’s the job of education authorities to say that health and physical education is at least as important as the arts or languages and should be in the curriculum there somewhere.”
Currently WA schools are not adequately resourced and nor do they receive the support they need, he says.
“What drives me is that I want these kids to stay around for longer and to be healthier, but it’s interesting that it also impinges on their academic attainment and of course with what we know about alcohol and the developing brain it’s not surprising. It’s not that it instantly turns you from a brilliant student to a dud, but we are talking about the sort of the thing that could be the difference between a B+ and B- and that’s pretty significant in itself. Just alcohol on the developing brain has an impact.”
Mike claims HPE is especially important for disadvantaged groups for preventable death and disease. It plays a fundamental role in supporting the government’s national Closing the Gap.
“An aboriginal child at birth could expect to live 15 years less than a non-aboriginal child, that’s desperately worrying.”
Schools aren’t the only answer, parents have a role, the community has a role, and legislators have a role.
But schools play a fundamental role in this area, says Mike.
With increased concern about teen drinking, Melville City Council has taken on the role of developing a short film, The Gathering, as a resource for teens, parents and teachers.
The short film provides an outlook on the harsh reality of underage binge drinking, gatecrashers, drugs, sexual assault, glassing and finally a tragic death - a party that spirals out of control.
The Gathering is supplied free to all senior schools in the City of Melville and is also available in local libraries.
For those outside the Melville area, the DVD and teacher resource can be purchased for $59.95 by calling 1300 635 845.