Most people will never have heard of The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) but it is Australia’s peak expert body promoting the development and maintenance of public and individual health standards. It was established way back in 1926 when our Prime minister was Stanley Bruce and we had a population of just over 6 million.

Things obviously moved at a more leisurely pace back then, as it held its first meeting in February 1937 which was taken up mainly by discussion on medical research, including the $30,000 pounds allocated for grants in the first year.

Since then the Council which now has 21 members has consistently supported and stimulated health and medical research, keeping them closely linked to public-health issues and the community’s need for health advice

In 2009 they issued guidelines to families across Australia stating that for children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking is the safest option. But then added that ‘for young people aged 15 to 17 years, the safest option is to delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible. So this leaves parents with a mixed message is it 15, 17 or 18 years of age. Why did they muddy the waters with this second line?

I have no problem with the logic the NHMRC used in coming up with the guideline that says no drinking until 18. They made the very reasonable point that the chances of dangerous behaviour is greatly increased among young people when they drink compared to older drinkers and that the research tends to show that young people tend to drink more and then take risks like driving and swimming while intoxicated.

They also pointed out that young person’s brain is actually still developing during the teenage years and that the consumption of alcohol during this time may damage the brain and lead to health complications later in life. They argued that the area of the brains compromised by alcohol included those parts responsible for decision-making, memory, and emotions.

They also cited Professor Ralph Hingson’s work in the USA that demonstrates that the earlier we introduce a young person to alcohol the more likely they are to develop problems with it later in life and the NHMRC came to the sensible conclusion that parents should do everything in their power therefore, to delay their first drink for as long as possible.

So what can parents do? While young people are influenced by many groups, such as the media, their friends and siblings, parents continue to be the greatest influence.

Parents can play an important role in their children’s attitudes towards, and use of, alcohol and other drugs.

The Family Peace Foundation believes that the following principles should guide your thinking on young people and alcohol:

Be the world’s expert on your child: How much your child is influenced by others is important when weighing up the risk of them consuming alcohol and drugs. Think about how susceptible your child is to the influence of peers and the attitudes and behaviours of their friends.

Get the facts: There are a lot of myths about alcohol and other drugs. Use evidence-based sources like The Other Talk  from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation to give your child the most accurate information.

Be clear in your beliefs: Based on the evidence, clarify your view of alcohol and other drugs. For example, it’s up to you whether your child drinks or not, but when making your decision consider the NHMRC’s guidelines, which state that the safest option for children and people under 18 is not to drink. The guidelines show evidence that parental monitoring and family rules about alcohol do reduce the likelihood of young people drinking.

Look for opportunities to start a conversation with your child: Keep conversations about alcohol and other drugs relaxed. Use relevant topics on the TV or radio and events as an opportunity to talk. It’s best to start talking about these issues early. Try to have the conversation in a quiet place or in a comfortable environment, e.g. the family dinner table. It’s never too early to have the conversation and there is no limit to the number of conversations you can have.

Make sure they understand the harms: Using The Other Talk, make sure your child has the right information about alcohol and other drugs and correct any myths. Talk about the benefits as well as the harms of different drugs and why someone might use them. Don’t exaggerate the harms as it will make you sound less credible.

Set rules and consequences: Explain your views on alcohol and other drugs and use the facts to back them up. Let your child know your rules and the consequences for breaking them. Help them develop ways of getting out of situations where their friends are using alcohol or other drugs and they don’t want to be embarrassed by not taking part.

Set a good example: You influence your child’s attitudes and behaviours, so if you drink responsibly your child is more likely to do the same later in life. Role-modelling responsible drinking means:

  • Following the NHMRC’s guidelines for adults – no more than two standard drinks a day to reduce long-term harm and no more than four drinks on any one occasion to avoid immediate alcohol-related injury
  • Keeping track of how many standard drinks you’ve had, even when you aren’t driving
  • Showing you don’t always need a drink to have fun or wind down
  • Demonstrating that you can refuse a drink from a friend if you don’t feel like it or you’ve had enough

Alcohol harms in Australia are extensive and well acknowledged: resulting in 5,500 deaths every year and a further 157,000 hospitalisations. That is unacceptable in a civilised society and we must start somewhere, we think delaying consumption until 18 is a good start.