Soapbox: Binge drinking girls

In two weeks' time my three best girlfriends from high school and I are getting together for a 10-year 'Schoolies' reunion on the Gold Coast (we are all class!). Our original Schoolies experience had all the classic and cliched hallmarks of the summer holiday-come-road-trip: boys, booze, sun, sex and the skimpiest of outfits. Think Laguna Beach meets Sex and the City in the Hamptons (only there were no hoedowns, cute doctors or cases of crabs). Fuelled by the sweet taste of Lemon Ruskis, Mindori and Lemonade and various vodka mixers, the mission was to drink a lot and dance a lot. Our working mantra: girls just want to have fun! Never mind the ghastly hangovers, our health or reputations.

Hailing from Sydney's northern beaches and aged 17 and 18, we were all pretty well entrenched in our nation's culture of binge drinking before letting loose on Cavill Avenue. Typically, we didn't get to see a lot of daylight. Schoolies requires an almost nocturnal existence. How we ever had the energy to sustain those long nights out clubbing, I do not know. Sheer youthful energy, I imagine. Oh, yes, and the drinking...

The nation's current crop of underage drinkers are being targeted with a new, two-year $20 million Federal Government multimedia advertising campaign (print, outdoor, TVC) timed to coincide with the binge drinking and debauchery extravaganza that is Schoolies Week.

Created by M&C Saatchi, the ads targeted at young women (tagline: ‘Don’t turn a night out into a nightmare’) will run in Cleo (whose swimsuit issue was sponsored by Midori), Dolly and Girlfriend magazines, while others will appear in cinemas, toilet stalls, buses, street and music press and outside nightclubs, as well as infiltrating key youth TV programming.

One of the shock-tactic TVCs depicts a half-dressed drunk teen girl fumbling around with a young guy in a garden while other partygoers photograph her embarrassment on their mobile phones. The key message? A night out on the drink won't end on a happy note, so consider the consequences of your actions.

According to the Federal Government:
  • Four Australians under the age of 25 die due to alcohol related injuries in an average week;
  • One in four hospitalisations of people aged 15-24 is due to alcohol;
  • 70 Australians under 25 will be hospitalised due to alcohol-related assault in an average week;
  • One in two Australians aged 15-17 who get drunk will do something they regret.
Concurrent with these statistics are rising rates of STIs amongst young women (alcohol, as we know, lowers inhibitions, making women more inclined to participate in sexual activity than their sober sisters), increased incidence of depression (alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant), unplanned pregnancies, and body image and self-esteem issues, all arguably related to alcohol consumption (as precursor to and/or temporary antidote).

While researching a story on teen binge drinking, which addressed the effectiveness (or futility, rather) of introducing the 'alcopop tax' earlier this year, it became clear to me that it will take more than token government ads and half-baked, flashy policies to change the culture... an ingrained drinking mentality that has existed for decades (remember Puberty Blues?). Getting drunk is almost a rite of passage... albeit a messy one with a vomity aftertaste. Can attitudes to binge drinking, or just drinking for that matter, ever be changed in the same way as smoking? Will drinkers ever become social pariahs?

And what exactly are we up against? Despite Amy Winehouse becoming a walking poster girl for the physical effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and the demise of the Young Hollywood party set via a string of DUI charges, drinking is still the party pastime dujour.

In fact, it has quite the glamorous image (see: Sex and the City). While magazines like Cosmopolitan and Cleo campaign against sun-worshipping and wouldn't dare run a picture of a celebrity smoker (unless for an anti-smoking story), they continue to promote a party-hard lifestyle via ads for the likes of Midori, Sky Vodka and Kahluah. One Midori competition run this year offered winners the chance to take two friends on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Whitsundays.

The women in those ads, including Yellowglen champagne's 'bubbly' series, are gorgeous and fun-loving: just what every young woman aspires to be. You can't imagine that these pretty young things might wake up in a stranger's bed or find themselves doing the walk of shame, stilettos in hand, at 9am as joggers stride past on a Sunday morning. It's all about 'living in the moment', after all.

As we come into summer, holidays and cricket season, I imagine the multi-million-dollar marketing behemoth that is the alcohol industry will be going into over-drive. The Public Health Association of Australia says the new binge drinking campaign aims to counteract the irreverent ads of the alcohol industry. Geoff Munro of the Australian Drug Foundation says the government must do more to regulate the alcohol industry:

"Alcohol is the new tobacco, and tobacco lost all credibility when it advertised and promoted its products any way it wanted. Alcohol is going down the same path,” Munro said. "They [alcohol companies] make out like it’s the consumers’ choice, but I’ve spoken with people in advertising, and alcohol is marketed and designed specifically to appeal to young people. It’s made very attractive to kids who want to get drunk fast on purpose.”

Often it's a bad personal experience, moment of revelation or the passage of time that turns young women (and men) off drinking (just yesterday one of my Schoolies comrades admitted she desperately wanted to give up the drink for good). And, even then, it's not easy to be social when you're the only teetotaller at the bar – a lot depends on the company you keep.

Until everyone comes to the party on this issue – media, advertisers, TV producers, interest groups, health professionals, educators, government, communities and parents – and agrees that we really do have a problem (it's not just a faze), I imagine curbing our binge drinking culture will be an uphill battle; particularly amongst those fun-loving young women. Step one is to quit glamorising and big-noting drinking – there's nothing glam or funny about throwing up all over yourself, acting like a slapper or contracting chlamydia. What's really needed is more education around alcohol – I'm not averse to the occasional tipple; a glass of red sipped during a meal is healthy and good for the soul. But many people – even into their 30s and 40s – are drinking with the sole purpose of getting drunk. This smacks of a lack of sophistication and self respect. I rather liked the RTA's 'No one thinks big of you' speeding campaign – the same 'do this and you're a loser' theme could be applied to binge drinking.

Escaping the 'Toolies' tag by virtue of the fact that we're mostly married (one with child), staying in Broadbeach rather than Surfer's Paradise and generally have no interest in turning all cougar-esque on the young men, I think my girlfriends and I are going to enjoy Schoolies this time round a whole lot more. Good company, great food, a glass of wine or two, girlie conversation, dancing and a whole lot of shopping – holidays are too short for hangovers.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel

P.S. A shout-out to the Red Frogs Hotel Chaplaincy team working Surfer's Paradise over Schoolies Week. Keep up the good work.


frangipani princess said...

I was researching a debating topic 'life begins at 15' yesterday when I stumbled across many of these figures (for use in rebuttal 'sure 18 is the legal drinking age, but 80% of 15 year olds drink regularly, half of these binge drink'). It's really sad. I'm just finishing year eight, and the amount of kids (girls especially) who love to go to parties and drink is amazing. If they're like this at fourteen, what are they going to be like at eighteen?
Personally, the closest I've come to drinking alcohol is the communion wine at church :P It just doesn't appeal to me. At this age, you don't need it to have fun. Sure, after I finish year twelve and am eighteen etc I may drink, but before then, no and definitely not in binge amounts.
In many European countries there is no legal drinking age (while on holiday there earlier in the year it was random to be offered alcohol) and children are brought up drinking little amounts. This leads to less curiosity and less binge drinking. They don't have to sneak around to drink, their parents let them have small amounts of alcohol at parties. Maybe we need to implement a measure such as this to stop the next generations drinking being even more out of control than this ones...

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Great point, Georgie. I'm sure you'll blitz your debate.

J. M. said...

Your information on binge drinking is excellent. I hope that those who read it will stop and remember that it is very uncool to get drunk.

Anonymous said...

From the age of 17 I watched my mother slide into the depths of alcoholism after a family tragedy. This is something that can never be "cured" only worked on from day to day. And I think if all of these charming little schoolies had to deal with something like this at their age, they wouldnt be such a wreck.

Being a 17 year old and having to act like an adult and mother to my younger sisters is something I don't wish upon anyone. My friends still think it's amusing if they come across my mother stumbling around drunk. they cant understand that it is something I deal with on a regular basis.

I believe I'm a well adjusted young woman, who, despite everthing has just finished my university degree and about to go out into the wide world.
And I celebrated over the weekend because it was my right. Because drinking is just, unfortunately, what we do.
I will admit I go out, I binge drink and sometimes I don't remember what happened. I'm in my early 20s now and have been doing this since I was about 15.
And I do it to forget about my problems. Which is stupid and honestly real at exactly the same time.
It's a rare occurence for me, but lowered inhibitions help when you just want to dance and flirt and smile.