ihra q4q





Conference report


Previous Conferences






Following the tradition of previous Alcohol and Harm Reduction conferences, the organisers (Q4Q, IHRA, ICAP, Dinamo) chose for a format that would trigger interaction , engagement and innovation , and would be entertaining at the same time. In addition, the programme committee (which represented many different disciplines, backgrounds and parts of the world) selected a conference theme that is a key topic of concern: Alcohol and Youth . They sought to highlight this theme from various angles and to ensure input from young people themselves.

A new element was to link our conference to Harm Reduction 2008 (HR2008), IHRA's 19 th International Conference. Having our conference the day before HR2008 had the advantage that participants of HR2008 could join us without incurring additional costs and that issues discussed in our conference could be taken further during HR2008. The disadvantage was the possibility of our conference being lost in the big IHRA event and that people only interested in alcohol would not come to Barcelona for just one day.

Interaction was stimulated through:

  • ‘Ice-breaking' exercises where participants walked around the conference room introducing themselves to other delegates and discussing their expectations of the day;
  • A ‘Youth Forum' session which allowed participants to vote for or against deliberately provocative statements and then discuss their thoughts;
  • Dividing the delegates into smaller groups for roundtable discussions on a number of key topics.

Engagement was stimulated through:

  • The active involvement of young people, both in the programme committee as well as during the day itself;
  • Giving delegates the opportunity to speak and ask questions whenever possible throughout the day;
  • An open-minded and informal atmosphere

Innovation was achieved not only through the non-traditional format of the conference, but above all through the excellent contributions of presenters and members of the Youth Panel. They provided the audience with new ideas and information about interesting interventions, and animatedly shared their (personal) thoughts.

A good conference is characterised by a solid, relevant and good quality content, first and foremost. However, it is also essential that it is entertaining and engages the audience's attention throughout. To achieve this, presentations were limited in time and the session format was changed at least every 45 minutes (moving between plenary presentations, working groups, panels and a specially produced short film).

Conference Theme: Alcohol and Youth

Prior to the conference, members of Youth RISE (Resources, Information, Support, Education) – a peer–led international harm reduction network- were asked to identify the drug that in their country/region caused the most harm to young people. Alcohol was consistently mentioned. At the same time, Australian research showed that 67% of young people drinking at risky levels actually classified themselves as ‘light' or ‘social' drinkers. Such underestimations of drinking risks are not easy to tackle, especially when adults are often no better (using justifications such as “I don't drink alcohol, just wine”, as was reported in Scotland). On the other hand, responsible drinking seemed to be common amongst young people participating in the Spanish ‘botellón' phenomenon of large open-air youth gatherings. Research findings showed an average alcohol consumption of 3 to 4 drinks per night; 94% of those attending the “botellón” indicated that they did not want to get drunk. As one of the Youth Forum panellists said: ‘When I see someone who is drunk, I don't think it is cool, it is just disgusting'.

Today, many young people in the Western world have more disposable income and thus are an important target group for marketers. Participants had different opinions regarding the role of alcohol marketing, but it was generally agreed that any commercial aimed at young people and promote alcohol as part of their lifestyle should be banned.

Media attention on alcohol can also have a negative effect. For example, one of the Youth Forum panellists reported that the media in her country constantly report on young people drinking excessively, which could make this seem ‘normal' and influence drinking patterns. Some participants also pointed to the role of celebrities who are frequently reported to be drinking irresponsibly and may set a bad example for young people.

Today, many young people in the Western world also have more leisure time . Alcohol plays an important role in socialising and relationships in Western culture and can symbolise friendship and pleasure. In this sense, it would be beneficial to look at the contexts in which alcohol is consumed – as two of the conference presentations and one of the roundtables did. One key factor in changing these contexts is the co-operation between all parties involved - policy makers, the hospitality industry, city planners, the police, and young people themselves. As was mentioned in one of the working groups, we have to accept that young people will take risks – they have always done so and will keep on doing so regardless of what we do. We must make sure that these risks do not lead to harms. For example, interventions such as diversifying late-night entertainment, providing sufficient night-time public transport, and ensuring that staff in bars and clubs are well trained, can all help to minimise alcohol-related harm in the night-time economy. But one of the Youth Forum panellist raised an interesting dilemma: young people must also be allowed to learn to be responsible themselves – for many people, getting into trouble is one way of learning where the boundaries are. The dilemma is that, if we help them too much and make drinking too safe and easy, they might not learn how to act responsibly.

Alcohol consumption by young people should also be seen in context of youth culture . In many Western countries, consumerism is a key element of youth culture, and the consumption of alcohol is a part of this. When combined with general trends of less parental control, more money, and more leisure time, excessive alcohol use may arise. To properly analyse this cultural context, non-traditional research methodologies are needed.

Delegates agreed that the behaviour of young people is influenced in many ways – whether by parents, teachers, peers, the alcohol industry, or the media. The conference paid special attention to the role of alcohol use amongst parents or carers. Often, this is not seen as an important issue, but the influence of parents' behaviour on the development of their children must not be underestimated. Not only could young people learn from bad examples, but they could also experience violence, neglect and other harms. This issue must be targeted by practical alcohol harm reduction interventions, such as a children's book presented at the conference. The book features a dog called ‘Rory' and was developed in Switzerland and later adopted in Scotland. ‘Rory' does not receive enough attention from his owners due to their alcohol use and blames himself for that, until he realises it is not his fault. The aim is that young people read the book in school and then talk about it at home – which may make the parents think more about the impacts of their own drinking.

In the discussions about Alcohol and Youth, the issue of ‘ binge drinking' came up regularly. Many participants questioned the traditional quantitative definitions of binge drinking and would prefer to look at binge drinking as drinking with the intention to get drunk. Also the haste in which alcohol is consumed is an important factor. It was argued that in situations where alcohol consumption is forbidden, people might drink secretly and would often consume as much as possible in a short period of time. In that respect, influencing the setting would pay off in reducing alcohol-related harm.

Regarding alcohol policies , most participants agreed that policymakers often don't understand young people and youth culture. They might also not know much about night life, since this is happening far away from the 9 to 5 office reality. At the same time, panellists from the Youth Forum admitted that they had little experience with policymakers and also did not have the patience to be involved in lengthy bureaucratic decision-making procedures.

It was recognized that traditional policies such as age limits, limited availability and price control can have their value. Information which is too prescriptive was not seen as a useful tool in reducing alcohol-related harm. Delegates generally agreed that a broader, more ‘holistic' approach was required - where learning to manage one's alcohol consumption is just one of the many life skills that young people should learn. Overall, it was felt that alcohol policies should be realistic and that interdisciplinary cooperation is one of the key factors for success.

In conclusion it can be said that the conference achieved a lot in a short space of time. There was a great deal of energy and enthusiasm during the conference, and delegates agreed that it was important now to try and maintain this momentum and follow-up from the conference as soon as possible. This report is the first step in doing that. Other activities are foreseen in the near future, in which IHRA's ‘Global Alcohol Harm Reduction Network' (GAHR-Net) – www.ihra.net/alcohol - will play a role as well.


© Q4Q 2007