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Wake-up call from Goa: teen tippling up three times

New Delhi, Aug. 5: Health experts have detected a dramatic threefold increase in alcohol consumption by adolescent men across a single generation in Goa that they have linked to India’s failure to regulate under-age drinking and the industry’s success in marketing alcohol.

Their study released today has found that the proportion of adolescent men in Goa who started to consume alcohol by 19 had increased from 19 per cent among those born between 1956 and 1960 to 74 per cent among those born between 1981 and 1985.

While the team of health researchers in Goa, London and New York analysed adolescent alcohol use trends only in a sample of men in northern Goa, they say their findings will be relevant to other parts of India with similar marketing and regulatory issues.

“The same forces that influence and allow adolescents to consume alcohol in Goa are present across the country,” said Vikram Patel, a senior psychiatrist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Sangath, a non-government research centre in Goa.

The study, based on the drinking habits reported by samples of 722 current drinkers and 256 past drinkers, also found that men who had started drinking under 20 years are more likely to experience alcohol-dependence or engage in harmful alcohol use patterns.

Patel and his colleagues say their study is the first population-based investigation in India to explore trends in adolescent drinking and describe how early alcohol consumption can affect drinking habits later in life.

“The threefold increase is extraordinary and can only be explained by socio-economic and cultural factors,” said Aravind Pillai, a researcher at Columbia University and first author of the study published today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Earlier studies from India had signalled a decline in age of alcohol consumption.

Doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, had a decade ago reported that the age of onset of regular alcohol use among men in Karnataka decreased from 25 years in 1989 to 23 years in 1998. Another study from a border area of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh had also found that more than half the men who consumed alcohol had started drinking before they turned 21.

The researchers believe the dramatic increase in adolescent drinking in Goa is the result of successful alcohol marketing techniques, few policies to control the use of alcohol and poor implementation of regulations that impose a minimum age for alcohol consumption which varies across states from 18 to 25 years.

“The alcohol industry has been very successful in promoting alcohol use among the youth through lifestyle advertising and the introduction of flavoured alcoholic drinks in cities,” Pillai said. The Goa study found that men from urban areas and those exposed to lower standards of living were more likely to report regular drinking during adolescence.

Sangath, the non-government research organisation based in Bardez, Goa, is now carrying out a six-year follow-up study of the men who participated in the original study to determine the long-term health impacts of their alcohol use.

“It’s time the government takes a close look at its alcohol policy and, in particular, clamping down on open surrogate marketing of alcohol targeting younger audience and enforcing the laws on minimum age for drinking,” said Patel. “We also need more intensive life-skills education in schools to curb early initiation of alcohol use.”