Involving youth in alcohol policies: imagining and planning for a better world

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“As a child, you’re not trained to think about politics or commercialism. You’re just enjoying life, studying, hanging out with friends. So, I get angry when I see people using that moment of living, of growing up, to put the wrong information in children’s heads.”

Sanja Šišović is Programme Director at CAZAS, a national public health nongovernmental organization in Montenegro, where she provides a voice for young people regarding their health and access to services. She is also Vice President of the International Youth Health Organization, a growing network supporting young people to actively participate in prevention programmes, research, policy and leadership. One of the issues she raises is alcohol harm.

“The alcohol industry is extremely aggressive in promoting all the different elements of alcohol use. We constantly have to fight this. Even when we create good laws, we have to fight to make sure those laws are implemented properly. We also need to invest funds into preventative programmes. So we need to push for a more positive approach in all of this.” 

Digital marketing of alcohol

Sanja is worried about young people growing up in a world where alcohol plays such a big part in everyday life. She is also concerned about industry tactics, such as digital marketing. 

“Most children and young people, especially adolescents, spend a lot of time online, at least a few hours every day scrolling through social media, and if they see adverts, articles and pictures featuring people drinking and different kinds of alcoholic beverages being promoted in a very positive light, it becomes extremely dangerous.”

As a result, Sanja says many young people are growing up with unhealthy beliefs such as that drinking alcohol makes you socially accepted, or more masculine, or that consuming very expensive wine makes you a powerful woman. 

“The monitoring of social media isn’t easy, so we need to help young people to choose their sources of information,” she says. “We also need to help them understand relevant health information and the full picture regarding alcohol, for example that it can make people feel sad. If they have all the facts, they are better able to make healthier choices.”

Health literacy and empowerment

Alcohol consumption is involved in a quarter of all deaths of people aged 20–24 in the WHO European Region, mostly due to injuries and violence. It also contributes to more than 200 diseases, health conditions and types of injuries, including at least seven types of cancer. About 2500 people die every day in the European Region as a result of consuming alcohol. However, Sanja thinks things are changing.

“I’m noticing that more and more young people are deciding to live healthily, to not drink alcohol, to exercise, to take care of their nutrition and to visit mental health services when needed. But I’m noticing as well that we are missing programmes which empower them to make these choices.” 

Sanja points out that while a lot of young people realize that alcohol is harmful, they lack the skills to be resilient to peer pressure, to community pressure, to the media, to marketing and even to family pressure. She thinks it’s time that programmes and policies are made for young people which actively involve them. 

“You can’t run a school programme where young people leave the building and buy alcohol for 1 euro in front of the school. It doesn’t make sense. When young people are on board, they have the power to change things, to be the positive example that is missing, to give the feedback that is missing. In many situations, we don’t have data to show us why something isn’t working, but young people will tell you first hand.”

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