Where does underage drinking occur and what is the appeal?
Some studies indicate that private parties are where most underage drinking occurs, with alcohol usually being supplied by a friend or a parent. "This is a really important developmental stage where young people learn from taking risks – what I'm trying to articulate is that young people drinking is also a normal experimental stage," says Szasz.
Social values can underpin why a young person decides to take up drinking. "Young people are morally judged on their alcohol use without any acknowledgement of the deeply problematic and embedded colonial culture of alcohol use," explains Szasz, who has been working in the community services sector for eight years now. "Every person who has grown up in so-called Australia knows the pressure of being young and expected to drink, either through survival or the pressure of social norms."
When young people develop a dependence on alcohol, it's important to remember that there are many nuanced reasons for why addiction can occur. Chris Gough, the Executive Director of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy, told SBS, "What we must remember is the people with problematic drug use often have extremely traumatising experiences behind them."
How does Australia's underage drinking problem compare to the problem elsewhere in the world?
While it's difficult to find reliable statistics that compare adolescent drinking in Australia with other countries, we can gain insight into how teenagers drink by looking at the country's historical relationship with alcohol and how we're culturally primed for drinking by the alcohol industry. During early European invasion, convicts in Australia were partially paid with rum (NSW was even considered a "rum state" for a period of time), and heavy drinking was deemed normal.
"According to the author of The Rum State, Milton Lewis, heavy drinking was an established cultural norm transported to Australia at the time of colonisation," writes Rob Moodie, Professor of Global Health, the University of Melbourne in The Conversation. It's fair to assume that there's a long history of passing down these cultural norms to our children.
What are the dangers of underage drinking? What can be the consequences for teenagers drinking?
Binge drinking and heavy, frequent drinking has consequences for everyone. Chronic use over time can cause conflict in relationships, adverse health and addiction. But there are some added risks for adolescents. According to Drinkaware.co.uk, "Due to a young person's lower body weight and limited ability to metabolise alcohol, acute intoxication can occur rapidly in children and young people."
Some scientists and health practitioners believe that because the prefrontal cortex – the section of the brain thought to guide rational decision-making – doesn't fully develop until a person hits 25, underage drinking can be riskier for young adults. They believe early alcohol use negatively impacts brain development.
Is it an offence? In Australia, could there be a fine or jail time or another penalty for underage drinking?
Until recently, you could order your child an alcoholic drink in Victorian restaurants. But now, in Australia it is illegal to serve alcohol to people under the age of 18 in licensed venues. Legal guardians, venues and minors can receive large fines or even face jail time.
Underage drinking is permitted by law in private homes with the consent of a legal guardian, but some alcohol laws vary from state to state. Supplying alcohol to an underage person without their parents' consent is a criminal offence. Some health practitioners are advocating for harmful alcohol use to be treated as a health and social issue, rather than a criminal one.
Are there any proposed solutions to prevent underage drinking? How are these working out
When it comes to preventing teenage drinking, Better Health Victoria writes, "You can't prevent your teenager from experimenting with alcohol, but you can encourage sensible drinking habits."
Addressing how the alcohol industry engages with promoting alcohol to minors plays a considerable role in harm minimisation. In The Conversation, Simone Pettigrew, Director of the Health Promotion Evaluation Unit for the University of Western Australia, writes that alcohol advertising "regulation is woefully inadequate."
According to the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, the 3.8 million Australians who drink more than four drinks a day make up for roughly 75 per cent of alcohol sales, even though they account for just 20 per cent of Australians (aged 14 and above). "Alcohol-related harm remains one of Australia's biggest social and health challenges, with excessive drinking second only to tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death and hospitalisation," reports Melissa Davey in the Guardian.
Preventing dangerous underage drinking will likely come from working directly with young people who are experiencing alcohol dependence. "The severe disconnect between the current governmental services and the actual needs of young people are evident when there is no funding or access to long-term affordable alcohol dependence healing services," explains Szasz. "We also know that the underlying causes are not being addressed at all, whether that be trauma, intergenerational trauma, poverty, or living in a violent home."
"I think we should be focused on the underlying issue of young people not being recognised and cared for in this country and the on-going effects of that," Szasz continues. "If young people felt there were affordable and accessible pathways to mental health services, affordable housing and social services, strong action on the devastating effects of climate change, addressing the on-going effects of colonisation for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, potentially there wouldn't be this so-called 'issue' of underage drinking."