Young Australians should be encouraged to avoid the excesses of Schoolies Week and instead take up overseas volunteer work in places like East Timor.
That’s the view of Professor John Toumbourou from the Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Research (CMHWR) who is leading a number of research programs aimed at making a difference in reducing problem drinking among youth across Australia.
“An international volunteering adventure would benefit not just the country the young people visit, but also their health, their personal finances and the health and wealth of the nation,” Professor Toumbourou said.
“Alcohol misuse is a major source of preventable health and social problems, costing Australians more than $30 billion each year.
“I first became concerned in the 1990s when Australian statistics revealed the rate of early secondary students using alcohol was increasing.”
Since then, Professor Toumbourou has contributed to reducing this problem using an approach that is being referred to as “prevention science”.
His research team uses longitudinal follow-up data and intervention evaluation studies to identify causes of problem drinking and solutions to these, before they occur.
Recently, Professor Toumbourou has been evaluating strategies at the community level to further encourage adolescent alcohol use prevention.
His research team is conducting a national community research trial with funding from an Australian Research Council Linkage grant.
Across three states, 14 communities have been randomly assigned to interventions with a further 14 serving as “as usual” practice controls.
The intervention is based on the Communities That Care model.
Coalitions are trained to mobilise their communities to deliver an evidence-based social marketing campaign.
The intervention encourages parents and early adolescents to agree on a rule that alcohol use will not be permitted until young people reach the legal drinking age.
A team from Deakin University is further assisting the change process by monitoring the sales practices of alcohol retailers in each community.
To further encourage lower rates of youth alcohol use in future years, the Communities That Care coalitions are encouraging alcohol-free activities in each community.
One strategy that is being considered is to increase the number of young people that commit to a significant international volunteering experience in the post-secondary school age period.
Professor Toumbourou is highly qualified to not just put forward the idea of overseas adventure volunteering over alcoholic excess at home, but also to assess their effectiveness.
He is a lead investigator with some of Australia’s largest longitudinal research projects including the Australian Temperament Project.
“These longitudinal studies show that children that use alcohol at an early age are more likely to drink alcohol regularly through their adolescence culminating in higher rates of alcohol dependence in young adulthood,” Professor Toumbourou said.
“Cross national longitudinal research completed by me and my colleagues in the International Youth Development Study (IYDS) has shown that Australian children use alcohol at twice the rate of their p -eers in the United States of America.”
These findings have influenced policy changes at both the state and national level in Australia.
Professor Toumbourou’s research was cited in the National Health and Medical Research Council decision in 2009 to revise the guidelines for safe alcohol use to discourage alcohol use under age 18.
In 2011 new legislation was established in Victoria making it illegal to supply alcohol to minors in the absence of their parent’s permission.
Somewhat surprisingly, Professor Toumbourou’s research team has also identified parents to be the major source of supply of alcohol to early adolescents.
“Parents think adolescents will become moderate drinkers if they use alcohol under parental supervision,” he said
“However, our research has revealed that parental supervision of adolescent alcohol use actually increases the risk of adolescent binge drinking with the effect being the same in Australia and the United States.”
Professor Toumbourou has made over 200 media appearances advocating his message that young people should delay the age they start using alcohol and that parents should not supply or supervise underage alcohol use.
He has appeared on ABC TV’s “Whatever - The Science of Teens” and “Catalyst” series and in other television, radio and print media.
Finally his message appears to be breaking through and rates of early secondary school alcohol use are gradually trending down across Australia.