Listen to this story, partly true partly hypothetical. A father of two young sons got really alarmed when he visited USA with them on one of his trips and they asked for Sparks. Well, he was not really alarmed when they said they wanted to buy Sparks, the latest RTD (ready to drink in attractive cans). He read the small print on the can while waiting for the cashier and was astounded. This drink had alcohol in it; 7%! His sons were teenagers. Here he was literally buying alcohol for his sons.
The father asked me one day if such drinks were available in Sri Lanka. I said “No, but they will be one day as the main targets of the alcohol industry are children, and young adults.”
“Yes, they will soon start importing.”
The father was visibly unhappy. “Isn’t there a law or something against such things?”
“No, there isn’t.” I replied.
His dejected look hung on.
This stuck in my mind and made me do some research. Alcopops are sweet, carbonated, alcoholic drinks. They are like commercial lemonade. They are usually fruit-flavoured and packaged in a way that appeals to young people.
It is no secret that this is an ingenious method invented by the alcohol industry to gradually and smoothly change the pattern in a young person’s need for a drink.
Slowly, young people are turning away from sweet drinks to alcoholic drinks.
Research has clearly shown that use of alcopops is associated with significant harm. Young people are four times more likely to binge drink if they use alcopops. They drink a lot in a short period of time.
Binge drinking elevates blood alcohol content to a harmful level in a short period of time leading to impaired driving and motor vehicle crashes, unintentional injury and so on.
However,the biggest shock was finding out that binge drinking causes irreversible damage to the brains of adolescents!
I read on: one particular study on 134 middle school students who were at high risk for alcohol use, but who didn’t have signs of any psychiatric disorders riveted me.
The study was published last year and was led by Prof. Lindsay Squeglia, an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Drug and Alcohol Programs at the Medical University of South Carolina, USA:
“They weren’t drinking heavily, they were drinking at levels that were thought to be ‘normal’ for kids of that age.” says Prof. Squeglia. So, she and her team followed them up for eight years with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning eight times between the ages of 12 and 24. More than half of them became heavy drinkers, later.
Furthermore, she discovered that “heavy-drinking adolescents showed accelerated grey matter reduction in cortical lateral frontal and temporal volumes and attenuated white matter growth of the corpus callosum and pons relative to non-drinkers.”
In simple words, it means: the greyish parts in brain, which represent the thickness of nerve cells in the brain, normally shrink a bit in these years; while the whitish parts in brain, which represent nerve fibres in the brain, expand. However, in those children who binge drank, the greyish parts shrunk at a much faster rate and the whitish parts didn’t grow as normal.
Isn’t this shocking news to any parent? Any human being!?
Alcohol in adolescence causes damage to the anatomy of the brain. And this is the period everybody expects the brains to grow and function better.
Sparks and all other alcopops are meant to kill the brains of our kids. And, may be even worse, they increase the chances of their becoming adult alcoholics! Each year the onset of alcohol drinking delayed, odds of an adolescent becoming an adult alcoholic is reduced by 14%!
Wait! That’s not all!
When I searched for the particular brand that was referred to by these teen boys, Sparks, I found another horrifying story.
Sparks is a caffeinated alcoholic RTD! In other words, an alcoholic energy drink!! And, do you know what happens when a powerful stimulant of the brain, caffeine, is combined with a powerful depressant of the brain, alcohol? A study done by a team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre found that young people who drank the mix were twice as likely to be injured and twice as likely to ride with a drunken driver!
I talked to my friend, the father of the teen boys, again. I apologised again for not having appropriate protective measures for our children in Sri Lanka and promised to do whatever I could in my capacity.
Over the last few years,Sri Lanka made great progress. So many people contributed to the work in this field: Protecting children from harms of alcohol.
Last year, 2015,Sri Lanka adopted a National Policy on Alcohol Control for the first time under the new government. This was a historic moment. And we all should be proud of this National victory.
The document, officially known as Sri Lanka National Policy on Alcohol Control 2014, translated into all three languages, has a very clear clause: The import, production, marketing and sale of alcohol products attractive to young people, broadly known as “alcopops” (described as beverages with fruit or other flavours which also contain a measurable percentage of alcohol) should be prohibited.
So, I picked up the ‘phone, again. And you know who I called and what I told him.