Rosalie Vella Piscopo and Antonio Olivari D’Emanuele, sedqa
Alcohol seems to be an integral part of social practices in the Maltese islands. At all sorts of occasions, including parties, local religious feasts and weekend nights out, many people seem to think that one cannot have an enjoyable time without drinking alcohol. Local festa celebrations in particular, which are supposed to be religious festivities, usually end up being the closest local example to alcohol-fuelled street parties, with consequences that often go directly against the teachings of the Church whose saint’s day they are meant to be honouring.
sedqa, the national agency against drug and alcohol abuse, is not against responsible drinking by adults. One needs to stress this before attempting to define the remit of the agency with regards to alcohol. The agency is against abuse, which can be responsible for various harmful effects on both the individual abusing and other innocent persons who end up as victims. The agency is against abuse such as excessive drinking, and strives to educate and instill more common sense in people so that they can acknowledge their limits and abide by them for their own good.
There are various definitions of the term “binge-drinking”; so to avoid confusion, we will identify it as being simply the consumption of considerable amounts of alcohol within a short span of time, usually with the intent to get drunk. How much one has to drink to binge depends on various factors, including the person’s tolerance to alcohol, the setting in which she/he is consuming it, the amount of time that passes between one drink and another, the food eaten and any medications the person may be taking. Factors like an empty stomach and medications, for instance, reduce the number of drinks that constitute a binge. Therefore a person may become drunk with very little alcohol. Remember also that drinking alcohol while taking any sort of medication is extremely dangerous.
The effects of binging are easy enough for all to see, and unfortunately, in the media, we hear and read about them most when something terrible such as a car accident or a fight occurs. The effects of binge drinking can be divided into the short-term or immediate effects and the long-term effects.
Short-term effects include car accidents, any injuries caused by aggressiveness, fights and accidents, loss of reasoning ability, engagement in unplanned and unprotected sexual activity, loss of consciousness as well as many other direct and indirect consequences of alcohol abuse. These could include problems at the workplace and sick leave if the person is still under the effect of alcohol or has a hangover on a Monday morning, or in class if the person is a student. Short-term effects are usually totally preventable if the person drinks responsibly, abides by his limits and abstains from driving if drinking. sedqa, thus, makes it clear that responsible citizens:
• do not drink and drive – the person who has consumed alcohol can never be in total control of his actions. Especially when driving, the person needs to react immediately, and alcohol makes the person unable to take quick decisions while driving.
• know their limits and abide by them – alcohol can make the person take decisions he will regret the following day.
On the other hand, long-term effects are those which develop over the years, and are not immediately visible after every binge. In fact, years of heavy drinking can cause major, permanent damage to a person’s body. The type and extent depends on various factors such as duration and severity of abuse. However, heavy drinkers are more prone to liver and pancreas damage, heart diseases, cancer and other serious diseases including alcoholism.
Other long-term health effects of heavy drinking might include weakened vision, malnutrition (since heavy drinkers often drink rather than eat), water retention (resulting in weight gain and bloating), sexual problems and other serious problems in middle age. Also, drinking “any” alcohol while pregnant can cause severe, permanent damage to the child and can result in birth defects.
ESPAD and the local situation
Alcohol is also especially dangerous to young people. Heavy drinking in teens has been shown to interfere with muscle and bone growth, together with problems for teens to grow to full-size. According to a research called ESPAD (the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs), which was carried out in 2003 among 16-year-old students in 35 European countries including Malta, it resulted that the main substance of abuse by young Maltese people is alcohol, especially binge drinking. This study, which is one of the major empirical studies that sedqa has participated in, reported these worrying facts:
• 94 per cent of respondents have drunk alcohol at least once in their lifetime;
• 48 per cent of respondents have been drunk at least once in their lifetime;
• 90 per cent of respondents have drunk alcohol at least once in the last 12 months;
• 75 per cent have drunk alcohol at least once in the last 30 days;
• 50 per cent have had five drinks or more in a row in the last 30 days;
• 24 per cent of respondents have had five drinks and more in a row for three times or more in the last 30 days;
• 21 per cent of respondents have had their last drink at home;
• Six per cent of respondents have experienced an argument or a quarrel because of alcohol use;
• Three per cent of respondents engaged in sexual intercourse they regretted the next day because of alcohol use.
Among the 35 countries taking part in the ESPAD study, Malta ranked fifth in the proportion of students who reported binging three times or more during the last 30 days.
Furthermore, in 2003, sedqa in tandem with the University of Malta’s Youth Programme Studies Programme, embarked on another study called “The Risk and Resilience Research Project”. This is a longitudinal study whereby the risk and resilience factors in young persons (aged 11/12 years) in relation to substance abuse are being assessed.
This study is spread over a five-year period, thus the study was repeated with the same cohort in 2004. Over 150 students were randomly selected to take part in this study. In the 2004 study, data analysis revealed that, consistent with the ESPAD surveys, the most commonly used substance among Maltese adolescents appears to be alcohol. While the first data set indicated that 52.6 per cent had used alcohol at least once in their lives, this figure has risen to 58.2 per cent the following year.
What does this mean?
An interesting fact that emerged from this study is that although most adults are more apprehensive about the use of “illicit substances” among their children, it emerged that the “legal” substances are more likely to be used by young adolescents. Thus licit substances like alcohol are not considered to be as such problematic, even when consumed in large quantities. The fact that more than 90 per cent of respondents have drunk alcohol at least once in their lifetime and that 21 per cent have had their last drink at home, is a strong reflection of the cultural acceptance of alcohol within our society and indeed, within our families. This demonstrates the need for concerted efforts by all concerned to make parents, educators and young people aware that excessive amounts of alcohol are harmful.
Binge Drinking Campaign
sedqa, as part of an alcohol awareness strategy, is placing an emphasis on binge drinking through a multi-pronged campaign. The main focus of this campaign, which is being called Don’t Risk It, is on young people’s drinking, but it also includes information and support for parents as well as educators. The aim of the campaign is to assist every section within the community, in particular young people, to develop understanding, attitudes and ultimately behaviour, thus enabling them to minimise, and if possible avoid, alcohol-related harm.
The main challenge for a communication campaign is to make teenagers aware of the potential negative outcomes prior to them embarking on drinking excessive alcohol. The aim is to reach teenagers through a variety of sources and in a range of settings. sedqa has developed a strategy which incorporates print media, electronic mass media, cinema advertisements as well as other resources so as to project its messages as widely as possible.
The campaign messages being put forward to young adults are twofold. The first is that excessive drinking can lead to socially unacceptable behaviour and regrettable consequences while the second is that by avoiding excessive drinking, one can have a range of social and health benefits. This campaign is ultimately for the well-being of the general public, since it aims to minimise alcohol-related harm.
Article provided by Foundation for Social Welfare Services