In Australian society, drinking alcohol is part of the 'rite of passage' to adulthood and is an important part of the social life of many young people and adults. But levels of underage drinking are high.
The most recent national survey of Australian secondary school students found that by the age of 13, 80% had tried alcohol. This number increased with age to around 86% of 14-year-olds and 96% of 17-year-olds. Ten per cent of 12-year-olds were current drinkers, meaning they’d drunk alcohol in the week prior to the survey, and this increased to reach a peak of 49% among 17-year-olds.
And it’s not just their age; the way they’re drinking is also a cause for concern. Around 20% of all 16- and 17-year-old students (and around 40% of current drinkers in these age groups) drank alcohol at risky levels — that’s seven or more drinks in one day for males and five or more for females (usually referred to as binge drinking).
Why does it matter? Many people probably think experimenting with alcohol is a normal part of teenage development. However, apart from the risks associated with being drunk (such as accidents), there’s a growing body of evidence that early onset of alcohol use, including binge drinking, puts people at increased risk of problems later in life, including adult alcohol dependence, illicit drug use and psychiatric problems.
How much are alcopops to blame?
It’s clear from CHOICE’S test that the use of sweet flavours reduces the natural resistance many teenagers have to the strong and (to many of them) unpleasant taste of alcohol.
In fact it’s long been argued that alcopops entice youngsters to begin drinking at an earlier age and that they’re associated with more frequent drinking and binge drinking in young people. And the way these products are marketed hardly deters young drinkers from aspiring to drink them.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the growth of this product category in the Australian market has been fast. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a 21% increase in the availability of alcopops, and estimated consumption of alcopops by people aged 15 and over increased by around 16%.
Some studies have found alcopops to be partially responsible for the observed increase in total alcohol consumption in adolescents. Contrary to this, though, a recent review of the published literature on the impact of alcopops on adolescent drinking found that evidence for these associations is scarce.