Editorial: It's a matter of life and death

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It is in the natural order of things for every generation of parents to lament that their children behave more badly than they did when they were growing up.

The youngsters, not unreasonably, complain that their elders have selective memories and that today's adults spent their teenage years doing as much as they could to traduce their parents' values.

They were grounded for their misdemeanours and the newspapers were full of horrified accounts of their excesses.

They have a point, but they are arguing for a false equivalence: as the man said, things ain't what they used to be.

Progress is great when it involves antibiotics, recyclable packaging, mobile phones. The problem is that self-destructive teenage behaviour seems to have progressed at the same rate.

Today's grandparents distressed their parents by wearing brilliantine in their hair and smoking tobacco; the next generation smoked weak marijuana and campaigned against the war in Vietnam while disparaging their fathers' war service; a tiny subset of them experimented with hallucinogenic drugs and most survived into a vaguely coherent adulthood

Modern teenagers are getting hammered at terrifying rates and using a terrifying range of substances.

The choices of poison plainly vary according to social class - methamphetamine is big in south and west Auckland; the kids from the leafy suburbs can find the cash for cocaine - but the picture is the same across the spectrum. Meanwhile, teenagers, most below the legal drinking age, live social lives awash with liquor.

Ball season always seems to bring the issue into focus but it is not just at after-balls and pre-balls that youth's relationship with toxic and mind-altering drugs, particularly alcohol, manifests itself as a dire social problem.

Our kids are endangering themselves at levels that even their most risk-loving predecessors would have regarded as unthinkable. And we seem powerless to do anything about it.

Complex problems are never susceptible to simple answers, except in the imaginations of the simple-minded. Lowering the drinking age has, by any intelligent analysis, aggravated matters, as many predicted it would and raising it again, though it will not undo the damage done, is a priority.

What is more, Parliament needs to pass such legislation unanimously and as a matter of deliberate policy. The idea that liquor legislation should be subject to a conscience vote is an anachronism that belongs to the days of temperance unions. Those who think that the formulation of liquor law is not a profoundly political matter are living in the distant past.

It has become axiomatic to observe that we live in a society saturated by alcohol, and the Government has been derelict in addressing the matter.

Justice Minister Simon Power's pathetic package of reform measures ignored most of the 153 recommendations of the Law Commission's report, particularly those to do with pricing, advertising and sponsorship. But the evidence is clear that those are the three main areas in which policy can discourage the normalisation of drinking among young people.

Beyond that, though, we all owe a duty of care to the young people in our lives and communities. As one of the youngsters interviewed in our Insight pages today remarks, alcohol and drug use are symptoms, not causes, of problems.

In a society increasingly beset by stressors of all kinds, the alienation of youth becomes less theatrical acting out and more a matter of life and death. What angst, what despair leads the natural risk-taking of youth to such lethal extremes? We need to ask and answer that if we don't want to continue watching our kids killing themselves at this appalling rate.

- Herald on Sunday

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