Last week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised to sponsor legislation that would severely limit the sale of alcohol to underage consumers. He cited a World Health Organization study that placed Israel in second-place globally (right after Ukraine) in drinking among 11-year-olds.
This is an issue that - perhaps because of our chronic defense problems - has never made it to the top of our national agenda.
As parents of teenagers doubtlessly agree, it should rank among our more pressing concerns. Netanyahu is the first prime minister who has seen fit to focus on the insidious hazard, perhaps because he is father to two teenage boys and is therefore likely more aware of our younger set's social milieu.
Netanyahu likened the problem to "a fast-spreading virus-borne epidemic." Unfortunately, that's no exaggeration.
To veteran Israelis this may sound implausible. Specific reservations strongly arise regarding the WHO survey that placed us a dishonorable runner-up to the Ukrainians, but things certainly aren't what they used to be here. Until the 1990s ours was largely a non-drinking society. Israelis enjoyed little more than an occasional sip but weren't used to drinking and didn't crave alcohol. That may be why it has traditionally been available on open supermarket shelves. With no abuse, restrictions were deemed unnecessary.
The influx of newcomers from the former-USSR, where habits are vastly different, created a very sizable segment of the population that heavily consumes alcohol. Concurrently, native-born youngsters were becoming increasingly influenced by media fads. Downing a bottle of vodka first became a dare at gatherings and has evolved into almost "normative" amusement, even for some preteens. Have doubts about this? Ask one of your kids to show you some of his or her friends' Facebook pages.
A recent University of Haifa study shows that 51 percent of teens surveyed reported they started drinking between the ages of 13 and 15, but 19% did so before they were 12. Moreover, 50% of youngsters overall reported to have experienced intoxication (14% of eighth-graders, 43% of ninth-graders). Among 10th-graders, 14% had been inebriated more than 10 times.
Most disturbing of all, the findings show that kids know the dangers well, yet expect alcohol to improve their social standing and increase their popularity with the opposite sex. Peer pressure is crucial - as more kids drink, others feel they must do likewise to win acceptance.
Road accidents caused by tipsy drivers and alcohol-fueled violence at clubs are immediately obvious risks. The damage to physical and psychological health, as well as to intellectual development in the very young, is no less critical.
THE TROUBLE is that no sooner did Netanyahu pledge legislation, than money become an issue. The police and Education Ministry sense a new pretext to demand greater budgets.
To preempt this routine ritual, we need first to make the sale of alcohol less profitable. And it shouldn't be readily available in supermarkets, groceries and candy stores, where despite age-restrictions alcohol reaches youngsters.
Circumstances make it essential to limit sales to liquor stores, which would have to be licensed by the police. Any slip-ups (like sales to youngsters or violence near the premises) would cost the proprietors their business permit.
Of crucial importance will be a full, unambiguous ban on the admission of under-18-year-olds to any establishment in which alcohol is served. Whether or not they purchase drinks should be immaterial. The very entry of kids to clubs, pubs or bars - where an older crowd parties - leads to alcohol being purchased for them. It also makes the allure of drunken "fun" more powerful.
Tax on hard liquor should be high. Vodka needn't be affordable. Liquor advertising should be further restricted, and the offers of "free samples" rampant in many places of entertainment should cease.
Such measures will not reverse the trend overnight. But they just might help reduce its proportions.