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Survey results this week that showed the rate of teenage binge drinking is now slightly higher among girls than boys were alarming but not altogether surprising.
The survey, by Massey University's Social and Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation (Shore) public health unit, found among 16-to-17-year-old drinkers, 28% of girls and 25% of boys drank at least eight standard drinks in a typical drinking session last year.
The number of girls in the 16 to 17 and 18 to19 age groups having at least eight drinks at a sitting had almost doubled since a 2004 survey; the number of boys drinking at least eight standard drinks fell in both age groups.
Shore director Prof Sally Casswell said the increase up to 2004 followed the arrival of ready-to-drink (RTD) "alcopops" in 1995 and the lowering of the drinking age from 20 to 18 in 1999. Dr Simon Denny, who led an Auckland University Youth 2007 study, also said the Massey survey results could reflect the alcohol industry's targeting of young women with RTDs.
A report on women and alcohol, released the same day, found RTDs made up 70% of the alcohol intake of girls aged 14 to17 and that RTD drinkers usually drank more in a session than those drinking other spirits, beer or wine. Dr Casswell said the high binge drinking among girls aged 16 to 17 might reflect "young women associating with older drinkers".
Men were more likely than women to binge drink at all ages from 18 upwards and Dr Casswell said overall men were drinking two-thirds of the alcohol available in New Zealand. The survey will likely bring the usual hand wringing, calls for action, and reflection of our drinking culture. But should we be surprised?
The results were based on last year's consumption, but there is no reason to believe they would be any better this year or next. At the end of August, Parliament voted 68 to 53 in favour of keeping the alcohol purchase age at 18 after a conscience vote.
Although retailers should check the age of young people buying alcohol, we also know from various council and police stings this is not always done and therefore people younger than 18 are able to buy alcohol. Of course, some is also bought and supplied by parents, relatives and friends.
The alcohol purchase age was the first part of the Government's Alcohol Reform Bill to be debated.
Justice Minister Judith Collins said then the Bill aimed "to drive lasting change to our drinking culture", had "a wide range of measures to reduce alcohol-related harm in our families and communities" and was "the first time in more than two decades that any government is acting to restrict rather than relax our drinking laws".
But the purchase age vote was criticised as a missed opportunity. And the whole Bill, which is progressing through the House, has also been criticised as not going far enough in terms of adopting the recommendations of the 2010 Law Commission, including minimum alcohol pricing, raising the age limit on buying alcohol and limiting the alcohol content of some drinks.
Last month, a $10 million investment package to reduce harm from alcohol and drug abuse was announced by Justice Minister Simon Power and Health Minister Tony Ryall. The package is designed to complement the Alcohol Reform Bill and the Government's Drivers of Crime programme. Its funding, from alcohol excise revenue, is in addition to the about $120 million spent annually on alcohol and drug treatment services. It is clear action is being taken to address the issue but the jury is out on whether that action will make the necessary difference on the ground. Ms Collins says the Government "can't do it alone ...
We all have a role to play in shifting our drinking culture, towards more moderate and responsible alcohol consumption." And she is right. In the pursuit of our freedoms, we are clearly failing to keep our children free from harm.
If that can't be guaranteed through individual, parental, societal, manufacturer and retailer responsibility, it is beholden on the Government to act. It may not go far enough for some - and too far for others. But as Parliament continues to debate the issues, all New Zealanders should also examine their own attitudes around alcohol and indulge in less finger-pointing and more role-modelling.