Chapter 4

What You Need to Know About Alcohol and Tobacco

Pictures of wine glasses and cigarettes

Here we present facts about two of the most commonly used drugs by young people - alcohol and tobacco. The chapter stresses the influence of parents and caring adults as role-models for youth in promoting healthy attitudes and behaviors about these two legally available (in most countries) and potentially harmful substances .


These days, convincing teenagers to view alcohol use as a potential problem can be difficult because alcohol is everywhere. Alcohol use may not seem all that bad: In many countries and cultures, most adults seem to use it. Alcohol is often presented in a positive way in TV programs and it is commonly used to celebrate major events.

Nevertheless it is not surprising that young people want to try it and use it. Being young often means trying new things, testing new freedom, taking more risks now that parents and adults are not around them as much as in earlier years. It is also readily available for most young people in non-Muslim countries.

Fact Check

Do you know the facts about alcohol and teenagers?

Parents must role-model responsible drinking behaviour. That means not getting drunk in front of your children, and not appearing that you need to drink everyday. Also, it is unwise – and illegal in some places -- to host a drinking party for teenagers. For example, some states in the United States now have a law that makes it illegal for a parent to host a drinking party in their home for under-age adolescents.

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is a depressant drug, made from fermented or distilled grains or fruit. In most countries, it is the most commonly abused substance by both teenagers and adults. The “high” that everyone gets from drinking alcohol is actually the feeling caused by its depressant effect on the brain. The following diagram shows the depressant effects on the brain when a person drinks various amounts of alcohol:

When brain function is depressed, the person may lose their inhibitions and feel “relaxed” but is also at risk for several negative consequences: Saying or doing things that would normally cause embarrassment, poor decision making resulting in unwanted sex, accidents, fights, accepting offers to try other illegal substances, or driving while impaired or drunk are some examples.

Under normal circumstances for most people, the body can safely handle about one standard drink per hour. However, your size, how fast you drink, what you've eaten, how you feel, and whether you are a female or male affect how alcohol affects you.

The same amount of alcohol content is in a 5-oz (or about 150 ml) glass of wine, a 12-oz (or about 330 ml) bottle of regular (4%) beer, and a regular 1 oz (or about 30 ml) serving of hard liquor/spirits. No matter which you drink, it's all the same to your body.

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Questions About Alcohol

What does alcohol look like?

Various alcoholic drinks including, beer, wine, scotch, brandy, margaritas and martinis

Most people recognize alcohol as it is used in liquid form. It can appear yellow, brown, clear, green, pink, blue, bubbly, and cloudy; usually comes in glass bottles or metal cans, and is served in a drink glass, mug, or straight from a can. Alcohol may also be served in semi-frozen sweet slushy drinks.

Recently, alcohol is being marketed to young drinkers in new forms, such as frozen alcohol-pops on a stick or mixed into sweet colorful gels. This is to attract the young user.

How is it used?

Typically, alcohol is drunk. Types include beer, wine and liquor. Recently, there have been a few reports of people injecting alcohol intravenously to avoid the telltale smell on their breath.

What is Binge Drinking?

As it suggests, binge drinking is when a person consumes large amounts of alcohol during a short period of time. An episode of binge drinking is typically defined as having five or more drinks in one sitting.

Some teens and young adults will make a game of binge drinking, and the rules of the game are to get drunk fast.

This is a growing problem today for many young people in different parts of the world.

Alcohol: The Hype

There is lots of hype about alcohol. Many youth, as well as parents, buy into the hype. The following examples may be some things you have heard from your own teenager or even from other adults:

Alcohol is a social lubricant because it makes people feel less anxious and inhibited.

However, alcohol can make you feel so comfortable that you will do things that you later regret, such as being taken advantage of by another person.

Underage drinking is a rite of passage. Everyone does it and nearly all children have already been exposed to it at home and in the media, so it’s nearly impossible to prevent youth from underage drinking.

Many teenagers drink, and some will drink to the point where they get intoxicated. But this does not minimize the importance of parents doing what they can to prevent alcohol from harming their child.

Drinking a glass of wine at dinner with the family, or as part of religious practices, teaches youth how to drink responsibly.

Very small amounts of alcohol given to a teenager may not be harmful. If you are going to introduce alcohol to your teenager, make sure it is just a few sips, and not enough to bring the youth to intoxication. Reinforce your concern that alcohol can be dangerous.

The fact is that many parents have also gotten mixed messages from the media, family, friends, about the inevitability of underage drinking.

Some parents give in to these social pressures and give up trying to influence their teen’s behavior, hoping for the best, and praying that their son or daughter will not get into trouble.


Take Alcohol Seriously

Youth learn attitudes about alcohol use from watching what happens in the home. If parents, siblings, or other family members drink, it is more likely your teen may try it at some time. Here are a few tips for sending a message to prevent drinking:

  • Keep your child active in the community, school, church, local recreation centers or in other ways. Keep yourself actively involved, as well, because children model what they see.

  • Talk with your children about the consequences of drinking alcohol, and of playing games involving alcohol consumption. Often, youth do not realize that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can result in toxicity and death.

Tell your teen that drinking often and heavily may cause damaging changes to the brain; these changes that may not show up immediately, but they could have long-lasting consequences later on, such as in areas of thinking, memory, decision-making.

And don’t forget the issue of the impact of alcohol on the developing brain as discussed in earlier chapters. We are learning more about this daily and the message is that the growing brain and alcohol is not a good combination.

Adapted from Parenting Adolescents.

Do Not Underestimate the Potential Dangers of Alcohol

Prevention-smart parents must consider their role-model responsibilities with respect to drinking behavior. For example, not getting drunk in front of your children and not appearing that you need to drink everyday.

It is probably unwise to have a party where drink is made available for underage teenagers.

Some families do allow children to drink very small amounts of alcohol with the intention of helping their children to learn how to develop a responsible attitude to alcohol and not treating it as something that makes young people want to use it secretly.

Alcohol and Sex

Drinking alcohol changes a person’s ability to make decisions. One area where this is particularly true is sex. The following facts highlight the relationship between alcohol use and sex among teens:

  • Youth who drink are more likely to engage in high-risk sex.
  • They are less likely to use condoms.
  • Teens who drink alcohol tend to have higher levels of sexual activity earlier, and have greater numbers of sexual partners.
  • They report higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection, and experience more unplanned pregnancies.

Talking to your teen about what can happen when they mix alcohol and sex is important, and should be discussed more than just one time.

Adapted from Parenting Adolescents.

What About Learning to Drink?

Youth learn about drinking from a complex mix of how their body’s biology responds to alcohol, what they see parents, family members, and peers doing, and messages from the media. They may copy what they see practiced in the home, and adopt similar attitudes their parents have toward alcohol consumption.

Research has shown that what youth observe from their parents has a lot to do with when an individual starts drinking, how heavily and often they drink, and their reasons for drinking. If the teenager sees that getting drunk is an acceptable practice by parents and by other important people in his life, chances are greater that a teenager will adopt the same attitudes and behaviors. But if a teenager sees adults use alcohol in a responsible manner, the likelihood increases that your son or daughter will use alcohol responsibly when of legal age.


What it is and what it does

Tobacco use is widespread, and in many cultures it is a “normal” practice; so much so that it is often overlooked when discussing teen drug use and addiction. It is important to remember that the drug in tobacco products, nicotine, is highly addictive, and that 70 – 90% of those who try using a tobacco product will become addicted. It is increasingly recognized that teenagers who smoke are at risk of becoming dependent on tobacco.

Tobacco use can lead to cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases and cancer, and there is growing evidence that links tobacco use to other serious medical or physical problems, such as cataracts, erectile dysfunction, ulcers and bowel disorders, infertility, sleeping problems, thyroid disease, and tooth and gum disease. Even exposure to someone else’s cigarette smoke may contribute to development of cancer in non-smokers.


Nicotine is a powerful drug. It is present in all forms of tobacco: Smoked, chewed or inhaled, nicotine in the brain stimulates feelings of pleasure. Nicotine in tobacco is just as addictive as alcohol, heroin, and cocaine.

Methods of Use
Inhaled: cigarettes, cigars, pipes, water pipes, bidis, snuff
Chewing: loose tobacco, spit tobacco
Slang for Tobacco
Cigs, smokes, butts
Chew, wad, spit
Observable Signs of Use
Bad breath
Smell of tobacco
Shortness of breath
Yellowed fingernails
Nagging cough
Discoloured teeth
Effects of Use
Increased attention, decreased appetite
Reduction of stress and anxiety
Gagging, nausea and vomiting (initial use)
Dilated pupils, watery eyes

There are many statistics about tobacco use. Here are two that may surprise you.

  1. Globally, more deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than by all deaths from all illegal drug use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides, AIDS, and murders--combined!

  2. More youth will die in their lifetime due to tobacco use than from all other drugs. Unlike other drugs, tobacco’s health effects may not show up until later in life, so its impact on mortality is easily disregarded. However, most smokers start using cigarettes during adolescence, then struggle to quit when they become adults. As quitting is not always easy, a great proportion of smokers will die prematurely due to tobacco-related diseases.

Tobacco Epidemic

According to the World Health Organization, the tobacco epidemic in the 20th century killed 100 million people world wide, and is currently the cause of 5.4 million deaths every year. If urgent action is not taken, it is projected that, by 2030, tobacco use will have caused 8 million deaths every year and more than 80% of them will be in developing countries.

WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic 2008

Tobacco Quiz: Got a Match?

Match the question to the correct percentage:
  1. Percentage of adult smokers who start smoking in their teens

    About 30%
    80% - 90%
  2. Percentage of smokers age 17 or less who say they regret starting

    About 30%
    80% - 90%
  3. Percentage of youth smokers who will continue smoking and die early from a smoking-related disease

    About 30%
    80% - 90%
Correct answers: 1 - 80%-90%, 2 – 70%, 3 – About 30%


Parents - Take Action

Helping your child to not use tobacco may also prevent him or her from using other drugs:

Teenagers who begin smoking in their early teens (12-15 years old) are far more likely to start using alcohol and marijuana earlier than teens who don’t smoke at all; or who do not start smoking until later.

First and foremost as parents, you want to prevent your child from ever becoming addicted. The best way to do this is to try and see that they never start using. You are your child’s strongest role model; you must model the behavior you want them to see. Don’t allow your teenager to smoke, don’t smoke yourself and don’t allow other adults (friends or family) to smoke in your home.

If you are addicted to nicotine and you do smoke be honest with your kids about your problem and try and share your wish that you do not want them to end up the same way.


Parents - Take Action

If your teenager has already started a tobacco habit in any form, there are ways to support him or her in quitting. Chances are he or she might want to quit. Current research indicates that many teenage smokers are interested in quitting, but need help to do so. Here are a few tips to help your teen:

  • Speak to your family doctor or pharmacist about things like nicotine gum or nicotine patches. Your doctor should have the latest information on current therapies and also be able to advise you about use by teens under the age of 18. Research shows that people have greater success quitting with this type of support.
  • Access counseling from a health-care professional or, if it is available in your community or your teen’s school, access group counseling.
  • Promote exercise and healthy eating.
  • Call a phone based support service. In several countries, governments have free services to give advice to smokers and their loved ones on how to quit. These services are are the most convenient way to get confidential help from well trained professionals for free.
  • Suggest your teenager change his or her routines. A large number of people that smoke make associations between certain activities and smoking.
  • Finally, discuss with your teenager the motives behind the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry targets young people as future smokers. Encourage your teenager to find out more about this industry and the detrimental impact it has on people all over the world and the environment.

No-one else is going to do it for us!

What To Do If You Have A Tobacco Habit

Ash Tray full of cigarette butts

If you are addicted to nicotine and have a smoking or chewing tobacco habit, you can still provide supportive and strong messages to your teenager. Share with him or her how difficult it is to quit. Express your desire to quit and lead a healthier life style. Research has shown that children of smoking parents who discourage their children from smoking are less likely to pick up the habit. AADAC, 2003

I wish someone had explained all this to me when I was your age...

Look at Your Own Behavior

Identify your own behavior with respect to alcohol and tobacco and decide what message you think this is giving to your child.

Discuss this with your family, friends – and your children.

Identify changes you might want to make in your own behavior with respect to alcohol and/or tobacco use.

Think about and make notes to prepare for a discussion with your child about these drugs.

What you need to know about alcohol and tobacco

This chapter has tried to highlight the particular concerns the prevention smart parent should be aware of with respect to the drugs most children are likely to use – alcohol and tobacco. Many children will experiment or try these substances. It does not mean they will end of as regular or problematic users or that they will come to harm. However alcohol abuse and tobacco use are the cause of the largest amount of preventable harm and death from drugs in the world.

Your children are under a lot of pressure to try and use these substances – from the media, from their peers, from the example of adults!

Do not under estimate the harm they can cause. It is important to talk to your children about these substances and make sure they are aware of the problems associated with them as well as being honest about your own use.

The other chapters offer other aspects of the effect these substances can have – including the influences from the media and the effect on the developing brain.

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