Vodka, vodka, vodka: Why is it so popular amongst teens and why is it so problematic?

Not surprisingly, the death earlier this week of a 15-year-old Sydney girl from apparent alcohol poisoning attracted a great deal of media attention across the country. According to media reports she had been drinking alone and returned a blood alcohol reading of 0.4 with NSW Police stating that the girl "sourced an alcoholic drink recipe from an online site, then put the information to the test." 

Although there has been a great deal of speculation about what actually happened, the police have made it clear that "the investigation is in its infancy" and we really won't know exactly what went down until the post mortem examination takes place sometime this week. A relative was quoted as saying that the young woman had consumed a bottle of vodka and early reports spoke about police seizing energy drinks, with lollies added to the apparent list of things that could possibly have been used in later stories. 

Until we know what actually happened I think we have to be careful about how we use this story when communicating messages to young people … Certainly NSW Police have already used the death to highlight the dangers of young people accessing and then using online recipes for alcoholic cocktails. Type 'getting drunk faster' into YouTube's search engine and you will be provided with 665,000 results - some of which are absolutely terrifying! This is an important message and a timely reminder for parents to be aware of the type of information that young people are able to access online but I hope we don't lose sight of the fact that, based on the reports so far, this young woman apparently drank a lot of alcohol and we must never forget that alcohol poisoning (i.e., drinking too much, too fast) kills a number of teens every year ...

Regular readers of my blog would know that I have been involved in a number of alcohol-related deaths over the years. Sadly, most of these are usually are young women around the age of 15 and almost all of them have involved vodka. Very few of these deaths received any media attention, with the parents involved understandably reluctant to come forward and speak about their loss. Now I need to be very clear that we do not know whether this girl consumed vodka or not but with a blood alcohol reading as high as has been reported it is highly likely that she would have been drinking spirits and, without a doubt, vodka is the drink of choice for young women who want to get drunk. If we do end up finding that vodka was in the mix, I just hope that the media doesn't become obsessed with the so-called 'drug cocktail' and focus on the mix of energy drinks and lollies … of course, accessing 'weird and wacky' recipes online is dangerous (it also makes for a far more interesting story!) but so is drinking a bottle of vodka, no matter what else is or isn't added to it!

Many parents are totally unaware of the popularity of vodka amongst teens until they hold a party and start the big 'clean-up' the next morning, only to find empty bottles of the stuff littering their garden or hidden in various nooks and crannies around the place. So many Mums and Dads have told me that they didn't really grasp the extent of vodka consumption amongst young people until their son's or daughter's 18th birthday when suddenly the partygoers' drinking behaviour was out in the open. But realistically, it is as far back as Year 10 where we start to see consumption of this product start to become a real issue. Some of the early drinkers who were experimenting in Year 9 have now been messing around with pre-mixed drinks for a while and begin to work out that if they want to get drunk quickly (at a cheaper cost), they need to dump the 'lolly water' and buy a bottle of spirits, with vodka usually being the drink of choice.

So why is it vodka that enjoys this popularity, particularly amongst young women? When talking about this with teens, some of the reasons they have come up with include the following:
  • it is regarded as a 'cool' drink (mainly due to the advertising promoting this product and its target audience). Vodka is now marketed to a much younger age group than it was in the past. Where once spirit advertising targeted older men, drinks such as vodka are now closely associated with young women, the youth nightlife scene and partying
  • they believe it to be free of calories (completely untrue). Like most alcohol, vodka does not contain any fat – but it does have calories, with a 'shot' of vodka containing just under 100. A bottle of vodka has approximately 2200 calories – more than a woman's total allowance per day, not including the mixer!
  • it is undetectable (where they get this idea is beyond me - have they ever smelt a vodka drinker's breath?). It is true that the taste of many vodka brands can be more easily masked by mixers, such as orange juice, than other spirits but it certainly does have a smell and can be easily detected on a young person's breath
  • it is less likely to cause a hangover (unfortunately, true to some extent!). One cause of a hangover is believed to be the presence of 'congeners' (chemicals produced during the fermentation process). As a general rule of thumb, the darker the alcohol, the more congeners present, i.e., the darker the alcohol, the greater the headache the next day. Of course, over consumption of any alcohol product is likely to lead to feeling unwell the morning after but vodka has far less congeners than most other alcoholic drinks resulting in a lower risk of a hangover
When I talk about vodka to a group of Year 10s and tell them that if they share a bottle between three of them they are drinking the equivalent of 22 glasses of beer you can literally see jaws dropping to the ground! They have no idea how much alcohol they are actually consuming when they down a bottle of spirits. Sadly, for some of those who are drinking in Year 10, particularly the girls, their lives revolve around a vodka bottle on a Saturday night. Three or four young women can drink a bottle of vodka in about 90 minutes and still be walking and talking (remember they don't experience the 'depressant' effects of alcohol like adults with fully-developed brains). When the depressant effect does 'kick-in', it can result in a frightening night for all concerned and often a trip to hospital in an ambulance. Many young people simply have no idea what they are doing to themselves when they consume these products and the risks involved with drinking large quantities when they are so young!

Interestingly, by Year 11 the 'hardcore' male drinkers have usually moved away from vodka. It doesn't take them very long to progress to dark spirits, with bourbon, whiskey and rum being the more likely drinks consumed by this age group.

Spirits, such as vodka, aren't necessarily any more harmful than any other form of alcohol if you follow basic guidelines (i.e., you consider the number of 'standard drinks' you are consuming), however, when you're young you tend to be unaware of the following risks:
  • Spirits or premixed spirits enable you to drink more alcohol, much more quickly when compared to other drinks. As already stated, if a group of young people share a bottle of spirits between them in a session they are drinking the equivalent of up to 22 glasses of full strength beer, 22 cans of mid-strength beer, more than 2 litres of a cask of red wine, or more than three bottles of champagne. For many young people, if they tried to drink this amount of wine or beer they would find it difficult to do so quickly - unlike spirits they are 'self-limiting' to some extent, i.e., you drink, you bloat, you vomit!
  • Due to the high alcohol content, it takes a comparatively small amount of spirits to cause alcohol poisoning or overdose. It is important to remember that it takes much less vodka, rum or whisky to get drunk than beer or wine. It would only take minutes to drink two shots of vodka (60mls), whereas for most people it would take much longer to drink beer containing the equivalent amount of alcohol (two 285ml glasses – 570mls), thus greatly increasing the risk of poisoning or overdose
Recent studies in Australia have shown that the risk of young people being admitted to hospital with alcohol-related liver disease has risen more than tenfold over five years. The most worrying increase in alcoholic cirrhosis has occurred in those aged 20 to 29, the majority of who would have begun drinking in their early teens. Researchers have suggested that this increase could be due to the increase in the consumption of products with high alcohol content, such as spirits. Young women could potentially be at greater risk due to their livers developing at a later age.

It can be so depressing sometimes speaking to a Year 10 group and see those two or three small groups of 'party people' in the room who are so obviously messing around with vodka on a weekly basis. They are usually totally unaware of how much they are actually drinking when they share a bottle of spirits and often don't feel any significant after effects the morning after. Sadly, when things do wrong with vodka (or any other spirit), they go terribly wrong. Drinking a bottle of vodka (or bourbon or any other spirit) is potentially life threatening, whether you're a teenager or an adult. The speed and ease of drinking spirits increases the risk of a range of acute problems including alcohol poisoning or overdose and, potentially, long-term health problems including liver damage. 

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