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Think Local

The 2011 Australian Secondary Students' Alcohol and Drug survey found 51 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds had consumed alcohol in the past year, and 17 per cent had drunk in the past week.

Rates of drinking at harmful levels by 12 to 17-year-olds have doubled in the past two decades in Australia.

Another sobering statistic is cited in a 2009 report by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which finds drinking contributes to the three leading causes of death among adolescents - unintentional injuries, homicide and even suicide.

The bad news does not stop there: drinking is also associated with risky sexual behaviour, adverse behavioural patterns, academic failure and physical injury in teenagers.

And the North Shore of course is not immune - local police say in summer it's not uncommon to find groups of up to 50 adolescents drinking booze at hot spots like Balls Head Reserve in Waverton and Wollstonecraft's Berry Island.

Now police and the local health district are stepping up efforts to educate the community about the dangers of underage drinking.

"We do a lot of proactive policing, where uniformed and plain clothes officers go out on Friday and Saturday nights to known locations… and deal with any Issues they see at the time," says Chatswood Police crime prevention officer Constable Loma Simmons.

But there's only so much the police can do, and they can't be everywhere at once.

"Parents have to be mindful of what their children are up to instead of allowing it to happen or ignoring the fact it is going on," Const Simmons confirms.

Research suggests children aged under 15 are at the greatest risk from drinking and the earlier a child is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop problems with it later in life, says Melissa Palermo, the health promotion manager for Northern Sydney Local Health District.

"There are links with the impact of alcohol on cognitive brain development, so our message is firstly that it's against the law but also that the longer you can delay your child's first drink, the better."

Ms Palermo is a member of a Northern Beaches Community Drug Action Team, which is behind the 'Stop the Supply' campaign featured on North Shore trains, buses and billboards.

The campaign reminds adults that supplying alcohol to a minor is unlawful and carries fines of up to $11,000 or a 12-month prison term. This is unless you are the parent or guardian of the minor - or have permission from the parent or guardian of another minor - and are providing responsible supervision. "On the North Shore, there is an issue with underage drinking and the secondary supply of alcohol to minors is clearly going on," Ms Palermo says.

"As a parent, you may think 'I'd rather they were getting their alcohol from me and I'd rather see what they're drinking under my roof' but what is often the case is that they may start with the alcohol you supply but then continue to get more once they've left the house.

"Technically, you can supply alcohol to your own child but if you were hosting a party and there were minors, you're breaking the law by providing alcohol to somebody else's child [if you don't have permission from the parent or guardian]," adds Ms Palermo.

But for some adults, the law is not a deterrent.

A 28-year-old North Shore medical administrator, who spoke to North Shore Living under the condition her name was not published, says she has no regrets about providing a six-pack of beer to her 16-year-old brother for his party.

"It was a one-off," she simply states.

"I only bought alcohol for my brother - definitely not anyone else at the party."

She says she does not believe the beer would harm him, but "if he asked me to buy him a one litre bottle of vodka - I just wouldn't."

The dangers of excessive alcohol consumption are well documented and someone who knows all too well what those risks involve is trauma nurse Maura Desmond from the Royal North Shore Hospital.

"We receive a lot of spinal cord injuries and brain injuries and often it's young people doing something stupid -binge drinking, taking drugs, reckless driving, jumping off things... alcohol-related violence - you name it, we see it."

Ms Desmond runs the hospital's PARTY program (an acronym that stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-related Trauma in Youth) to educate young people by using actors to simulate alcohol-related trauma response in an emergency department.

"We do a trauma simulation in the emergency department so we get the paramedic to wheel in an actor -they might have been drinking and fallen over and hit their head or taken a pill, had a seizure or been in a car with a drunk driver.

"We'll say to the teenagers, 'What you're learning today is how we save lives - now you need to decide how you're going to save a life.' That might be by taking the car keys off a best friend if they are drunk or by not pressuring them into having that extra shot," she explains.

"There's no point us saying, 'Don't do this, don't do that'.

We're just showing them the realities of what we see and giving them strategies so that if they do experiment, they can be safer."


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