THE prevalence of substance abuse in Ireland has been an issue for both the Government and the HSE to tackle for many years. The question of how much of a role the influence of the media has to play in the use of drugs and alcohol has been studied, with numerous conclusions such as the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Ireland (HBSC) annual study and ‘Children, Adolescents, Drugs and the Media’, written by Victor C. Strasburger. But one thing that has been found is that the abuse of substances by young people in Ireland, alcohol in particular, is at extreme levels.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) 2011 survey found that 27.2 per cent of respondents had tried drugs with most having used them in the last year. The rates are also high for drug and alcohol use in children under the age of 17 in Ireland, according to the HBSC 2010 study carried out by the Health Promotion Resource Centre in NUI Galway.
In this, 28 per cent of 10 to 17-year-olds reported having been ‘really drunk’ before, four per cent of these under the age of 11. In the ‘State of the Nations Children’, a report from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs stated 10.5 per cent of the same age group had smoked cannabis in 2010. In Strasburger’s article published in the Handbook of Children and the Media 2001, he states that the impact of media can depend on the specific child but the use of factors like celebrities can make children and adolescents particularly susceptible to advertising. “Celebrity endorsers are often used and older children and teenagers may be particularly vulnerable to such ads.”
Strasburger also writes, “A variety of studies have explored the impact of advertising on children and adolescents. Nearly all have shown advertising to be extremely effective in increasing young people’s awareness of and emotional responses to products, their recognition of certain brands, their desire to own or use the products advertised.”
Rory Keane, HSE Regional Drugs Co-Ordinator, says that the media can have both a positive and negative impact on young people depending on the way it is reported. “The media reflects societal attitudes so we have a type of duality, where on the one hand there is a lot of coverage about bad young people doing bad things and causing problems for everybody else and then there is the tragedy when a young person might die from an accidental overdose or can get themselves in serious trouble or come through the recovery process and there is an almost heroic or martyrdom.
“The Irish Examiner in the last four or five years has done some very positive and challenging articles about Ireland’s drug and alcohol problems and its very good investigative journalism and very good critical reporting. But then you look at some of the tabloids and the reporting about Katy French and that sensationalism isn’t very respectful to the individual and the family involved.”
Drug use in fashion and the media isn’t seen as having a strong presence in Ireland, according to most experts; therefore it doesn’t impact on young people as heavily as body image or subliminal advertising does. Rosemary MacCabe, fashion journalist at the Irish Times, credits the lack of a major fashion industry in Ireland on young women not abusing drugs for weight loss purposes, which can be seen in other countries. “From what I gather, in places like the US and the UK, a lot of girls take cocaine to stay skinny, whereas in Ireland, we don’t have a high fashion industry. It’s not actually desirable to be skinny in an Irish model agency, that’s not what they’re looking for. So there isn’t that kind of pressure on models and on ordinary girls.”
The use of substance abuse to control weight in Ireland is usually confined to legal drugs like cigarettes and was the subject of a study done in Trinity College’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Studies entitled: ‘Young Women’s smoking and body image: a discussion paper for Irish Nurses.’ This paper stated that ‘women have a perception that smoking helps to control weight and that quitting smoking means an automatic weight gain. This perception is a central feature of female adolescent smoking and even at the end of primary school female smoking was already linked to image, sexual attractiveness and style’.
However, academics and representatives at the HSE are becoming increasingly worried about the role of alcohol as a ‘gateway drug’ and its heavy use of advertising in Ireland, particularly at sporting events. The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy compiled by the Department of Health and Children in 2012 talks about the attitude that Irish people have towards alcohol and the place it has in our culture. Although alcohol contributes hugely to the Irish economy through exportation, tourism and employment, the human cost can be far greater and places a huge burden on the State with dealing with the consequences of its misuse.
Rory Keane talks about how, although there is no real link between the media coverage of illegal drugs and substance abuse among young people, advertising around legal drugs like alcohol can have much more of an impact. “The media certainly wouldn’t be named as a specific risk factor with drugs but we do know that when young people are in communities which are pro-drug use or pro-alcohol use, that has an impact, we see it in terms of alcohol much more often and much more clearly. There are these very real concerns behind the sponsorship in the drinks industry of sporting events and again it’s giving a very pro-alcohol message.”
Mr. Keane adds that alcohol isn’t the only factor in underage substance abuse, even though it is a serious one, “Alcohol sponsorship on its own isn’t why we have a problematic relationship with alcohol. We have to look at a whole range of other issues: the availability and cost of alcohol is a very significant issue and obviously the misuse.”
With the alcohol industry creating so much income and employment during the economic crisis in Ireland, the use of advertising alcohol, especially towards young people, is far from over. In 2008, the alcohol industry provided 50,000 full-time jobs and the manufacturing had a turnover of nearly €3billion in the same year according to the Substance Misuse Strategy report. The year after, the industry produced over one billion euro in exports.
Eva Devaney, course co-ordinator of the Diploma in Drugs and Alcohol Studies in University of Limerick says that the financial climate can really dictate the choices that the Government makes about issues like alcohol sponsorship. “For a long time there has been talk about banning alcohol sponsorship in sports and they just haven’t gone down that route. In my own view there are several reasons for that – one would be, that if the alcohol companies aren’t sponsoring, where is the sponsorship going to come from? They have such huge resources behind them to put into sports; it would have to be substituted with something else, where does that come from? Then there is the real power of the alcohol lobby, the Vintners Association and the manufacturers.”
The National Drugs Strategy (interim) 2009-2016 published by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs outlines plans to set up a number of measures in post-primary schools to combat drug and alcohol usage, such as targeting early school leavers. The Strategy states that this particular demographic can often be influenced into taking drugs by family or individual dysfunction or other ‘negative social influences like negative peer relationships or media influence’. Other schemes include prevention and awareness programmes like Social Personal Health Education (SPHE). In the EMCDDA survey taken in 2009, almost 90 per cent of students had received these classes. But Ms Devaney says that SPHE can only be effective when it is taught properly.
“We do know that SPHE is rolled out unevenly so some schools do it better than other schools. There is no real in-depth discussion of why young people use drugs. In theory the SPHE programme is very good. In practice, the way it’s rolled out is very spotty so that some kids will get a good programme in school and some of them will not. I would be in favour of making sure that SPHE is rolled out evenly across the nation and making sure there is a high quality.”
She adds, “We do know that the life skills type of programmes work, when you work on students own self-esteem and confidence and assertiveness, just being strong in yourself when you’re making choices so you’re not making them out of peer pressure or other influences like media.”