South African teenagers can legally drink alcohol from age 18, but a growing number are not prepared to wait.

Durban - Children should be screened for alcohol use and exposed to regular interventions about the associated dangers, as underage drinking is getting out of control.

In an article in the June issue of the South African Medical Journal, Professor Neo Morojele and Leane Ramsoomar flag the issue of excessive drinking among adolescents as a “significant public health problem” in South Africa.

South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence national co-ordinator, Louina le Roux, agreed and said the latest South African Community Epidemiological Network on Drug Use report, released in February this year, showed that the main drugs used in KwaZulu-Natal by those under 20 were alcohol, at 39%, and dagga, at 44%.

The report also showed that there had been a sharp increase of people under 20 being admitted for treatment for alcohol abuse, from 39% to 63% in the past three years.

The average age of admissions had also dropped from 37 to 28, meaning that people were drinking excessively at an earlier age to develop a dependency that needed treatment.

Young people tend to engage in binge drinking, defined as women consuming four drinks, and men five, in a short period.

This is associated with long-term progression to problem drinking and alcohol-related problems, including road and other accidents, violence and crime.

The medical journal article suggests that since young people tend not to seek help for their alcohol use, measures such as screening, interventions and referral for specialised treatment should be carried out by doctors and nurses at clinics.

Screenings can be done using questionnaires designed to detect alcohol abuse, and brief interventions such as talks on alcohol use have also been found to be effective in reducing consumption among adolescents.

Le Roux said the average age at which children tried alcohol was 13 years for girls and 11 for boys.

“Although many young adults drink responsibly or abstain altogether, alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. Binge drinking is a common problem and becomes popular in mid-adolescence and peaks during college years.”

She said early detection of alcohol-related problems could only yield positive effects if the children and their families were offered assistance and support.

She added that research showed that young people who started using alcohol before the age of 21 were more likely to be involved in violence, attempt suicide, engage in unprotected sex or have multiple sexual partners and develop alcohol-related problems later in their lives.

[email protected]

The Mercury