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With summer drawing to a close, many of us are helping our children shift gears and think about returning to school. Grown children are getting organized to attend college or university, some for the first time -- and it's important to help them realize what lies ahead. Along with the discussions about living on their own, setting their own goals and making sure they attend to their studies, there's another topic you should have a serious talk about: alcohol and binge drinking.

Binge drinking merits a name of its own. It is usually described as drinking five or more drinks for a man, four or more drinks for a woman, in a single occasion.

While illegal drug use has been on the decline in Canada, drinking -- and more alarmingly binge drinking -- has been increasing. Studies show that kids are drinking at younger ages, starting as young as 13 and continuing through the university years into adulthood.

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The 2003 Ontario Student Drug Use Survey found that more than 80 per cent of Grade 12 students said they drank, and 45 per cent admitted to having taken part in binge drinking at least once in the previous month. The study also found that the biggest increase in binge drinking happens in the early high-school years. Whereas 8 per cent of Ontario Grade 8 students binge-drink, the number soared to 24 per cent by Grade 9. And it is no different in other provinces; British Columbia has the highest rate of binge-drinking high-school students, both girls and boys.

At the university level, the problem gets even worse. Surveys show that about two-thirds of students have five or more drinks in a single sitting. While we often think of older people when we think of the term alcoholic, these studies show us that it is our youth who need our attention.

The decade-long Canadian Community Health Survey done by Statistics Canada examined binge drinkers who reported drinking 12 or more times a year. While 18 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds met this definition in 1994, that number soared to more than 30 per cent in 2003. For 55- to 64-year-olds, the numbers remained almost unchanged, with 10 per cent meeting the definition in 1994 and about 13 per cent a decade later.

Aside from health risks, being drunk can result in loss of control -- including unwanted sexual encounters, embarrassing behaviour, hangovers that interfere with the ability to go to school and an increase in fighting.

Binge drinkers not only face long-term problems associated with alcohol, such as liver disease, but they also put themselves at increased risk for injury and death caused by impaired judgment. From car accidents to drownings to falls and acts of violence, binge drinkers are at far greater risk.

Teenagers may not realize they can also die of an alcohol overdose, officially known as alcohol poisoning. (In 2002, 68 Canadians died of alcohol poisoning.)

Studies show that the brains of 13- to 20-year-olds are still growing and developing, and binge drinking has far-reaching implications for cognitive skills such as memory and the ability to do tasks that require hand-eye co-ordination.

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It takes about 30 minutes for alcohol to be absorbed by the gut and get into the bloodstream. So binge drinkers, who are drinking alcohol at a faster rate than their body can handle, don't realize they are consuming too much.

But can speaking with your children about the dangers of alcohol abuse really make a difference in their behaviour? A recent study in the journal from the American Psychological Association shows yes, indeed, talking to your child can have real influence.

The study surveyed 266 incoming freshmen at a northwestern U.S. university about their reasons for drinking; the most common response was that it enhanced social behaviour -- simply put, they drank to fit in with their friends. Most doubted that they would ever be caught drunk driving. And those who believed that alcohol had positive outcomes, such as making them more sociable, were far more likely to binge drink. Not surprisingly, those respondents were more likely to report instances of blacking out, having a regrettable sexual encounter or having a hangover.

But the study also found that students who had had discussions with their mothers about the negative health effects of alcohol abuse, and the risks ranging from embarrassing social actions to drunk driving, were far more likely to drink responsibly.

This suggests that teen-parent discussions are crucial when it comes to curbing alcohol abuse.

Many programs at schools and hospitals across Canada teach high-school students firsthand what can happen as a result of excessive drinking. But parental influence cannot be underestimated. When our kids are little, we teach them to look both ways before they cross the street, to pay attention to the crossing guard and the meaning of red lights. As they grow up, we need to keep teaching about the new risks they will encounter -- and keep talking about the importance of a responsible, healthy lifestyle.

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Dr. Marla Shapiro can be seen Tuesdays on CTV's Canada AM. Questions about general health issues can be sent to her at:

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