Posted on April 25, 2014 by Tia Lalani

Augustana political studies professor Shauna Wilton says young people approach drinking the way they are taught.

This Second Thoughts column by Augustana Political Studies professor Shauna Wilton ran in the Camrose Booster on April 8, 2014.

parents-influence-teen-drinkingA few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio discussion on the topic of raising the legal age for drinking. Lots of listeners were calling in with their opinions, but the overall theme was that young ‘newly legal’ people don’t know how to handle their alcohol. What wasn’t discussed was the North American culture of drinking. The ways in which young people approach drinking alcohol is directly related to what we teach them or, more broadly, the culture of drinking that they grow up in.

I have lived in a variety of countries around the world and witnessed the drinking habits of their different cultures. From my experience, Sweden and Belgium offer two excellent examples of the impact of culture on drinking. The population of these countries, like Canada, have high incomes (considered globally) and are largely urbanized. In all three countries, the average person over the age of 15 consumes about 10 litres of alcohol per year (ranging from 10.8L in Belgium, 10.3L in Sweden, and 9.8L in Canada), yet their drinking patterns, the government policy on drinking, and the risk of alcohol related health issues all differ significantly.

Sweden has socially recognized problems with alcohol consumption and the World Health Organization (who.int) gives them a risk ranking of 3 out of 5 (moderate risk). Alcohol is only sold in government liquor stores, which have very restricted hours (until recently they were not even open on weekends), and the state applies an across the board 25% tax on alcohol. Despite these restrictions, a person is more at risk of developing an alcohol-related disease and you are far more likely to see public drunkenness in Sweden than in either Canada or Belgium. As well, almost 20% of all alcohol consumed is hard alcohol or spirits and the average price of a beer is almost eight dollars. At those prices, it is not surprising that they also produce a lot of bootleg spirits.

In Belgium, beer and wine are readily available at grocery and corner stores. Children are frequently present in public places where alcohol is consumed, such as pubs, and so beer and wine are seen as a part of life, most often consumed in connection with meals. The legal age for ordering alcohol in a pub is 16 and the average price of a beer is approximately two dollars. However, Belgium is given the lowest risk rating by the WHO.

In Canada, much of the laws relating to the legal consumption are determined at the provincial level. In Alberta, the legal drinking age is 18. Alcohol is sold in specialized liquor stores, but these are not operated by the government and are open all days and most hours. Children are not present in establishments where drinking occurs, other than at restaurants. Canada has a risk ranking between Sweden and Belgium (2 out of 5) and the average price of a beer is $4.50. However, among the three countries, Canada also had significantly higher rates of episodic drinking than the others, especially among men.

These three countries are similar in many ways. Their differences in government policy towards alcohol, however, vary significantly. What becomes apparent is that higher control and regulation of alcohol does not lead to a lower risk of alcohol related diseases. Sweden has one of the most highly regulated alcohol policies among Western, developed countries, yet has significantly more problems associated with alcohol consumption than Belgium, which has a very relaxed alcohol policy in comparison. What I suspect is more important, is the culture of drinking that we live and, in particular, how we model drinking for children.


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