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United Nations statistics show that about 40% drug abusers worldwide get addicted between 15 and 20 years of age. In India, a study done by Nimhans shows that the average age of starting alcohol abuse has reduced from 28 years in the 1980s to 17 years in 2007.

The Indian Association of Paediatrics is observing Teens Day on Monday, focussing on drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers, the theme being ‘Booze and abuse: Either lose them or lose yourself’.

“Latest researches show that the age of initiation of alcohol usage has fallen from 21 years to 18 years over the last decade,” said Dr Preethi Galagali, consultant adolescent paediatrician, Adolescent Care and Counselling Centre, Bangalore, and a member of Academy of Indian Paediatrics.

The legal age for alcohol consumption again varies from one state to another. For example, in Bangalore while youths are legally permitted to drink after 18, in Delhi 25 is the age limit. “The frontal lobe of the brain (also known as the judgemental centre of the brain) is one of the last portions of human body to develop and maturity takes place only between 21 and 24 years of age. When adolescents start early on alcohol, drug or even tobacco smoking, chances of him getting chronically addicted is very high,” said Dr Galagali.

When the brain is developing, the neurotoxin quality of alcohol acts on it, slowing down the development. This also leads to slow learning and poor coordination in the adolescent, she said.

Lifestyle changes, increased disposable incomes, peer pressure, lack of adult supervision, lack of communication in families are all in a way responsible for an increasing number of teens taking to addictions, said Dr Sulata Shenoy, child and adolescent psychologist, Turning Point Child Guidance Centre.

“Now the trend is to experiment at younger ages with behaviours which previously were confined to adults. Now children are maturing early, both physically and mentally.” They have various experiences right from early childhood, they travel globally, are more exposed to different cultures and lifestyles and the ‘been there, done that’ attitude eggs them on to risk-taking behaviours, she said.

Children and teenagers are vulnerable both physically and psychologically to early exposure to addictions, making them vulnerable to early sexual experimentation, lack of focus on their life goals, dropout from academics and inability to hold on to long term relationships and jobs, said Dr Shenoy.

Schools and colleges are the commonest places where alcohol abuse begins, either as a solitary or group activity. A combination of factors like migration, independence, curiosity, peer group influences, academic stress, socialising, easy access and media influences drive youngsters to experiment with alcohol and later become regular users. Keeping this in mind, the Academy of Indian Paediatrics, Bangalore Chapter, is focusing on schools to generate awareness about the topic among teenagers, parents and teachers.

The programme has been organised by Academy of Indian Paediatrics at two government schools in Basveshwarnagar, which will include over 150 students from VIII, IX and X standards. Debate, letter writing competition and poster-making, all themed around alcohol and drug abuse will be held. “We have organised talks on alcohol abuse and similar competitions among teenagers from slums as well,” said Dr Aruna Chinappa, consultant paediatrician, Child Central Clinic, Koramangala, and a member of Academy of Indian Paediatrics.

On Friday, Dr Chinappa conducted a similar programme at the Laxman Rao Nagar slum, at Viveknagar. “It is one of the slums with highest adolescent and youth population and we are planning to set up a weekly or fortnightly teen clinic here,” she said.

Early Intervention is the key to change.  Regardless of whether you live in New York or Conneticut, online Alcohol awareness classes for adults and minor in possession classes for those under 21 are a great preventative tactic to reduce alcohol and drug related injuries.