By Zoe Taylor

There is a trend in Australia that suggests more young people are choosing to abstain from drinking alcohol, but a project led by Curtin’s National Drug and Research Institute (NDRI) reveals that the subset who continue to drink may be doing so at riskier levels.

Coordinated by Dr Tina Lam, the Young Australians Alcohol Reporting System (YAARS) is a collaborative national project that provides detailed insight into the risky drinking habits and associated harms experienced by 14–19 year olds.

In 2016 and 2017, YAARS surveyed 3,500 Australians aged 14–19 who represented the heaviest drinking 20–25 per cent of their age bracket.

With alcohol being one of the leading causes of death and hospitalisations among young people in Australia, the findings of the YAARS project can help inform policy, prevention and treatment initiatives, as well as parental responses to teenage drinking, to make drinking a safer experience for young people and the wider community.

What is a risky drinker?

For adults, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that the consumption of no more than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces the risk of alcohol-related injury from that occasion.

Half the YAARS participants were found to be consuming 11 or more standard drinks per session at least once a month.

“Exceeding four standard drinks per sitting per month increases the risk of ending up in the emergency department with an injury to above one in 100,” Dr Lam says.

“As the quantity consumed increases, the risk of injury or even alcohol-related death or disease also rapidly increases. These risk levels are for adults, so the risk is likely to be even higher for young people.”

Consequences of risky drinking

More than three-quarters of survey participants experienced at least one negative consequence as a result of their most recent risky drinking session; 34 per cent said or did embarrassing things; 20 per cent felt sick or vomited; 16 per cent did impulsive things; 19 per cent could not remember large stretches of time; seven per cent passed out; and seven per cent got into sexual situations they later regretted.

“While some of these outcomes, such as vomiting and hangovers, can seem less serious, when they are frequently experienced they can point toward a more problematic pattern of harms,” Dr Lam says.

A teenager’s brain, which continues to develop until around the age of 25, can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.

“When heavy alcohol consumption becomes chronic, changes to the brain’s mesolimbic ‘reward’ pathway occur. Regular exposure to alcohol reduces the brain’s baseline sensitivity to pleasure, and drinkers may compensate for this by consuming higher quantities over time to get the same feeling. This gradual escalation of use can contribute to the development of dependence and other alcohol related problems.”

Alarmingly, a fifth of the YAARS survey participants reported signs that were also suggestive of alcohol dependence. Dr Lam says that changes to individual behaviour can dramatically reduce the risks associated with heavy drinking.

Minimising harm

“The primary thing would be some sort of reduction in the quantity of alcohol consumed. Kids get really disappointed when they hear that, but even a small reduction, on a population level, is going to have a significant impact on the number of young people ending up in the emergency department.”

Contrary to popular belief, parents also play a significant role in how young people use alcohol.

“One of the consistent findings is that if a parent doesn’t approve of a young person engaging in risky alcohol use, that person is less likely to engage in that use,” Dr Lam says.

“It is important parents are positive role models – they have to walk the walk, not only talk the talk. That seems really obvious, but it’s important to support parents, to say that you might think your teenager isn’t listening to you anymore, but be assured that evidence suggests you can have a huge impact throughout their childhood and late adolescence in delaying or reducing their drinking.”

The WA Minister for Health is currently investigating placing a minimum floor price on alcohol in an effort to reduce the state’s alcohol-related harms.

“The evidence tells us that strategies that influence the availability of alcohol have the greatest impact in reducing harms such as hospitalisations, traffic accidents and alcohol-related violence. This suggests that we need to look at price mechanisms,” Dr Lam says.

“Such legislation needs community support to be realised and can’t stand in isolation. That means thinking about how we treat alcohol in our homes and as part of our social circles, and how we learn about it in schools. We need small changes in a variety of areas to deliver the message that we care about and want to prioritise youth safety and health.”

Find out more about the NDRI