Youth vs alcohol

Drunkenness predisposes to injury, violence, risky sexual behavior and suicide

Young people often underestimate the risks associated with excessive use of alcohol and potentially impaired decision-making.

Every minute one person dies from alcohol-related harm in the Western Pacific Region. Alcohol is one of the biggest risk factors for deaths among young people in the Region. Young people are especially at risk for alcohol-related injury (e.g. drunk-driving), risky sexual behavior and suicide. “One in three current drinkers in the Western Pacific aged 15 to 19 has engaged in excessive drinking,” notes Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. “Alcohol abuse is associated with depression and anxiety. Excessive drinking is closely linked to self-harm and suicide.” Under the influence of alcohol, they are at higher risk of injury from drink-driving and violence. A driver under the age of 20 with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 g/dl is five times more likely to be involved in a crash than older more experienced drivers. Road crashes involving young people are also more likely to be fatal.

Studies have shown that between 48-61 percent of fatalities among pedestrians are linked to alcohol. Globally, across all age groups, alcohol is estimated to be responsible for 26 percent and 16 percent of years of life lost from homicide among males and females respectively.

In the general population, alcohol and other substance use disorders are found in 25 to 50 percent of all suicides. The risk is further increased when it coexists with depression and other psychiatric illness. Of all deaths from suicide, 22 percent can be attributed to the use of alcohol.

Alcohol consumption can increase the likelihood of young people engaging in risky behaviors such as unsafe sex. The risk of unwanted pregnancies is 14 times greater without modern contraception. Continued drinking while pregnant increases the risk of complications such as premature birth and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Unsafe sex also contributes to sexually transmitted infections including the risk of contracting HIV.

Regular recreational drinking during adolescence is the clearest predictor of alcohol dependence in adulthood. Over time it increases the risk for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer and liver cirrhosis.

These consequences impose significant direct costs to society such as health care related expenses. Indirect costs from lost productivity due to absenteeism, unemployment, decreased output, reduced earnings potential and lost working years due to premature pension or death account for as high as 76–91 percent of the total burden to society.

How to protect the youth

In 2014 at the United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on NCDs, member-states pledged to intensify efforts to prevent the needless loss of life from NCDs. This includes setting national targets by 2025 to reduce risk factors and underlying social determinants.

The nine voluntary NCD targets include a 10 percent relative reduction in the harmful use of alcohol. Regulations regarding the availability of alcohol, comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising and promotions, and price increases through taxation are cost-effective interventions to address this threat to public health.

It is estimated that doubling the tax on alcohol would decrease the number of alcohol-related deaths by 35 percent, traffic deaths by 11 percent and sexually transmitted infections by six percent. Added revenue from alcohol tax may also be used to fund health promotion activities.

Young people can be powerful agents of change. Across the different social media platforms, between 24-57 percent of active users are aged 16–24. Social media provides a space for discussion and advocacy for measures to protect themselves. Youth networks and community forums are other tools young people can use to make their voices heard.

Advocacy to key stakeholders (e.g. families, educators, and policy-makers) is crucial to raise awareness and political commitment for the development of evidence-based policies that reduce alcohol consumption. Health workers can educate and screen young people for problematic behavior and provide brief intervention and referral at the primary-care level. Integrated care programs incorporating counseling, rehabilitation, and detoxification are more effective than standalone approaches.

Vital Signs Issue 87 Vol. 4, May 1-31 2016