Deakin University researchers have found high rates of underage drinking in the City of Warrnambool. Deakin psychology professor John Toumbourou, who led the research, said there were serious dangers in providing alcohol to underage youth.“Recent surveys found 57 per cent of young people in the City of Warrnambool were using alcohol at age 14. When asked where they obtain their alcohol they commonly reported getting it from home, but in some cases from bottle shops,” Professor Toumbourou said. “The national health guidelines clearly state that the safest option is for young people not to use alcohol before they turn 18. The earlier a young person starts using alcohol the more likely they are to experience injuries and harms, impaired brain development and alcohol problems later in their life. “The evidence is very clear – in communities where underage youth find it difficult to obtain alcohol, there is less youth alcohol use and are fewer alcohol related injuries, assaults and deaths. Communities with less youth alcohol use have higher rates of school completion.”

Professor Toumbourou urged all adults, including parents and those working in bottle shops, not to supply or sell alcohol to children under 18 and to work together to support local youth to become a “smart generation” by not damaging their brains with alcohol. “People working in the alcohol industry should always ask for age identification before selling alcohol to young people, however we have found that this is not always the case in the City of Warrnambool,” he said.

A Deakin University team has been visiting bottle shops across the Warrnambool region to check sales to customers that look underage. The check involved a legal-aged person of underage appearance attempting to buy alcohol, with an independent monitor present.

The team found a number of staff in the bottle shops sold alcohol without checking age identification even though the people making the purchase had been judged by an independent panel to clearly look under 18 years of age. Letters have been sent to the bottle shop managers alerting them to the sales practices of their staff as a way of helping the managers to reduce underage sales.

“A growing number of staff in the alcohol industry are obeying the law and refusing to sell alcohol to underage youth,” Professor Toumbourou said. “The feedback from the managers is clear that staff selling alcohol to underage youth are failing to do their job.”

Professor Toumbourou said an increasing number of parents are successfully preventing youth alcohol misuse by communicating clear rules not to buy or supply alcohol to underage youth. This may mean, for example, becoming stricter and not turning a blind eye when children wish to sip dad’s beer.

“Parents sometimes have the fear that if they don’t allow alcohol use at home their children may rebel and use alcohol behind their backs,” he said. “Research shows that in families where parents set a rule that children are not to use alcohol, rebellion tends to be limited to the children having a few drinks behind their parents back and there are much lower rates of underage alcohol use. However, in the families where the parents allow moderate alcohol use their children are more likely to rebel with heavy and harmful alcohol use.”

WRAD Director Geoff Soma said a culture of “drinking to get drunk” was deeply entrenched in everything from celebrations to sporting clubs. “Underage drinkers often slip under the radar of groups such as WRAD because those who seek out help are usually older and their drinking has reached crisis levels,” he said.

Mr Soma pinpointed issues around peer pressure, trouble at home and, in extreme cases, sexual abuse as pathways to underage drinking. “Ideally you want to suggest to people to leave it as long as possible (to drink) but it can be very difficult in those situations,” he said.

He said issues such as the number of bottle shops and alcohol advertising warranted further study.  “Ignoring it is not going to make any difference.  There needs to be more research.”