By Andreas Izamis
Cyprus children rank third in alcohol consumption and binge drinking in Europe according to a 2016 study by the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD).
A similar study in 2011 ranked Cyprus 5th among 36 countries in the purchase of alcohol and 2nd in consumption of alcoholic beverages in bars, clubs etc
The findings were presented to the House Education Committee by the Cyprus Anti-drugs Council which discussed the availability and consumption of alcoholic beverages among minors as well as the measures which should be taken to combat the phenomenon.
According to the report, alcohol is easily available to 88% of minors in Cyprus, while nearly half have drunk more than five drinks during an event over the past 30 days.
Excessive drinking occurs in about 57% of boys and in 45% of girls, showing an increase of 1% and 11% respectively since the last study in 2011, while the same report shows that the ease at which alcohol is available to youngsters in Cyprus is 10% more than the European average.
“Globalisation, the internet and children’s tendency to mimic are all contributing factors to the seriousness of the situation,” said local filmmaker Elena Alonefti, whose documentary about underage drinking ‘Empousa’ is now in the post-production stage.
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According to Alonefti, Cyprus, like many Mediterranean countries that did not have a drinking culture, unlike their northern European neighbours, suddenly found itself with a situation which it could not handle and did not understand.
During the course of filming ‘Empousa’ it became evident that the state and parents were ignorant of the problems posed by alcohol, they lacked awareness and didn’t know how to handle the problem.
The Health Ministry itself did not see the issue as a priority, the police were either unable or unwilling to patrol the clubs to prevent underage drinking and basically the state believed that it was up to the parents to take charge of the situation.
“There is a sense of denial in Cyprus, the government has a responsibility to educate parents about the dangers of alcohol as parents in general are ignorant as to the seriousness of the problem and on how and what should be done,” said Alonefti.
The screening of the film’s trailer at an event attended by ministers and other stakeholders has changed perhaps many attitudes to the dangers of underage drinking.
“They all came with speeches which they never said after watching the trailer, because they realised what they had to say was totally debunked by what they saw,” said Alonefti.
“Health Minister George Pamboridis went as far as to say that alcohol is the drug of today,” she added.
Alcohol is easily available to underage persons in Cyprus whether it is in pubs, clubs and kiosks.
“The pubs in the Famagusta region complained that they were losing business to the kiosks that were selling alcohol, that’s how bad the situation is,” said Alonefti.
“I have never been asked for identification at a club or at a kiosk when buying alcohol,” said YS, a teenager who graduated from high school this year.
“Once you manage to get into a club, nobody is going to ask you for identification,” he adds.
“Fifteen to 16-year-olds won’t go to a party if there is no alcohol. If they realise that a party will be alcohol-free, one can consider themselves lucky if a third of those invited actually turn up,” said YS
RI, another 17-year-old, doesn’t go clubbing, in fact his group of friends prefer to hang out at one of the gang’s houses if they’re going to have a drink, of course without the parents being there.
“We have a few drinks, it’s just to get into that silly mood really,” he said.
“Of course each one of us has his own reasons for drinking; some just want to relax a bit, others just want to let go and some because they are depressed,” he adds.
NT is another high school graduate; she believes most teenagers start drinking because it’s the ‘cool’ thing to do and its one way of being accepted by their peers.
“Girls generally tend to have a drink once or twice a week when they go out with their friends, during summer holidays, though they drink more as they tend to go out more,” she adds.
Although NT believes that girls have more control over the amount of alcohol they drink, YS doesn’t quite agree.
“Guys may drink more often, but when the girls decide to drink they tend to make up for lost time, they can out-drink us,” he adds
The Cyprus Anti-Drugs Council (CAC) says it is looking into ways to make access to alcohol more difficult to underage drinkers.
The CAC has recommended: increasing the minimum age for alcohol consumption from 17 to 18; the training of employees at sales points in the correct and responsible sales/serving of alcoholic drinks; the development of a modern and clear control system; increasing the fine for serving alcohol to minors to €3,000.
But is this enough?
Underage drinking is associated with traffic accidents, injury and death, suicide and depression, missed classes and decreased academic performance, loss of memory, blackouts, fighting, vandalism, date rape, and unprotected sex, which places youth at risk for sexually- transmitted diseases, HIV infection, unplanned pregnancies and cancer.
According to David Jernigan, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University: “the easier alcohol is to get, in general, the more people will drink”.
Another expert in the field, Dr Arie Sigman, psychologist and author of ‘Alcohol Nation’, believes that 15-year-olds are at a peak vulnerability of addiction and maintains that the longer children are delayed from drinking any alcohol, the more likely they will have a lifetime protection from alcohol abuse.
Is Cyprus sailing uncharted waters along with the rest of the Europe Union, which has the ‘honour’ of being the largest alcohol consumption region in the world? Are we going to forge ahead and introduce a policy against underage drinking through trial and error? Or is there a method, tried and tested with outstanding results?
Iceland has managed to turn its lot around dramatically. In the Nineties walking down the streets of the capital Reykjavik was a dangerous undertaking due to the hoards of teenagers getting totally drunk.
Strict legislation was introduced, but so was a social movement aimed at natural highs – people getting high on their own brain chemistry.
The idea was that music, dance, hip-hop, art, martial arts, etc. could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they needed to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety; others may be after a rush.
Programmes were introduced on a municipal level with remarkable results.
Today, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the month previous to a survey plummeted from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. The percentage that has ever used cannabis is down from 17% to 7%.
So, perhaps it’s time to admit that we need help; there is a system out there that seems to work.