Shane O’Callaghan: It’s time to talk about a fresh approach to teenage drinking

Instead of sweeping it under the carpet, let’s have a conversation about underage drinking, says barrister and Cork City councillor Shane O’Callaghan
Shane O’Callaghan: It’s time to talk about a fresh approach to teenage drinking

In a perfect world, no one would drink before turning 18. However, the reality is that underage drinking is happening every week in every city and town in Ireland, and has been for decades.

One of the roles of a public representative is to foster debate about issues and policies affecting our communities — particularly if those policies do not appear to be working as well as they should.

That is why I proposed that Cork City Council write to the Minister for Justice asking that consideration be given to reducing the legal drinking age to 16.

I am not recommending a change in the law to reduce the drinking age to 16. However, I am saying that the issue needs to be debated, because the current system, which has been in place for decades now, is clearly not working.

In a perfect world, no one would drink before turning 18. However, the reality is that underage drinking is happening every week in every city and town in Ireland, and has been for decades. People might prefer to ignore it and pretend it is not the case, but the reality is that it is happening, and I think we should talk about it.

If the majority of 16- and 17-year-olds complied with the existing law, there would be no issue but, unfortunately, that is not the case. A survey conducted by Alcohol Action Ireland last year found that a staggering 82% of young people have drunk alcohol by the age of 17.

More worryingly, the survey also found that spirits, which are the most harmful alcoholic drink, are by far the most popular type of alcoholic drink for 17-year-olds. Spirits are the drink of choice for 38% of 17-year-olds, followed by cider at 32% and beer at 26%.

Are we happy for our teenagers to secretly binge-drink vodka in groups in the park on a Friday night? Surely not.

Perhaps it is easier to just pretend that it’s not happening, to brush it under the carpet and not talk about it? I would suggest that is exactly what we have done for years. It’s easier to say nothing and just ignore it. 

I think we need to shine a light on this issue and bring it out into the open to foster a healthier relationship with alcohol in our young people. I think it is worth considering a fresh approach to tackle underage binge drinking.

Perhaps we should look to countries such as Germany for a possible solution. Rather than trying to keep young people away from alcohol completely, the German policy is to teach young people to have a responsible approach to alcohol consumption through a gradual or grading process, which permits them to purchase and drink beer and wine at 16, and spirits at 18.

In this country, the opposite is the case. There is no gradual approach — all alcohol is illegal until you turn 18.

Yet, by far the most popular drink for 17-year-olds here is spirits — not beer — and a 2018 study by the World Health Organization found that both Irish and British teenagers are much more likely to engage in binge drinking than their teenage counterparts in any other part of Europe.

Shane O'Callaghan: "I think it is worth considering a fresh approach to tackle underage binge drinking." Photo: Billy macGill.
Shane O'Callaghan: "I think it is worth considering a fresh approach to tackle underage binge drinking." Photo: Billy macGill.

Another issue is the secrecy around it. Under the current system in this country, the majority of young people’s first interaction with alcohol is to hide the fact that they are drinking. In my view, this is not a healthy way to first interact with alcohol.

We should be opening a conversation with our young people about all of this, in a bid to promote a healthier relationship with alcohol later in life. These are not easy conversations to have.

However, would a parent of a 16- or 17-year-old prefer for their son or daughter to go to the pub or a friend’s house where parents are present to have a few beers, or for them to go to a park or woods and binge-drink large amounts of spirits in secret?

Pubs and houses are safe, controlled environments. Parks and wooded areas are not. Quite the opposite. They are often remote and difficult for emergency services to access.

Perhaps the practical, common-sense, German approach should be looked at, and attempts made to foster the kind of environment in which the norm for 16- and 17-year-olds is to have one or two beers in a pub or a friend’s house under adult supervision instead of binge-drinking in a local park or woods.

At the very least, let’s open a conversation about it and share views about how we think this can be approached in our country.

I think that modern Ireland is a place where difficult issues can be pulled out of the shadows and discussed openly without fear of judgment or recrimination.

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