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The Seriousness of Underage Drinking During Carnival

So, it is Carnival time again. Time for Caribbean nations to celebrate culture, to have fun and to endlessly jam. However, lurking deep behind the scenes of our festivities is a known wrong which we often turn a blind eye to — underage drinking.

If you are from any of the Caribbean islands, you may already be aware that “fetting” is a huge part of our culture. And every good fete needs good fuel. Alcohol, for this reason, becomes a frequently used substance to facilitate fun times for many individuals during Carnival celebrations. “Alcohol use is in fact deeply ingrained in the socio-cultural fabric of the Caribbean” according to Sandra Reid, the deputy dean and senior researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of the West Indies.

In her research “Time for a regional alcohol policy – A literature review of the burden of normative alcohol use in the Caribbean,” Reid notes that there is a thriving alcohol industry in the Caribbean, and this, of course, is of great economic importance. The alcohol and spirits industry as well as the hospitality and promoting businesses that work in tandem with the industry provides jobs to many local and regional individuals.

The industry lightens the mood for Carnival and without the industry, let’s be honest, Carnival may not be as fun. While Reid notes the importance of this industry she also highlights some of the negative outcomes that are associated with the industry. One major outcome highlighted in her work is “Fiesta Drunkness.”

Sandra Redi, Deputy Dean of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of the West Indies

According to the senior faculty member at the University of the West Indies, Fiesta Drunkenness describes overindulgence of alcohol and alcoholic beverages during festivals, parties, or jams; that can lead to increased negative outcomes. She emphasized the increased likeliness of unprotected and risky sexual behaviors, toxic masculinity which can further develop into violence and brawls. This type of behavior makes injuries occurring among drinkers as well as nondrinkers participating in the carnival events quite common.

It is not my business in this article to suggest to adults whether they should or should not drink alcohol. As an adult that is your choice, while moderation should always be encouraged. Your level of maturity should indicate your ability to not “overdo” and inevitably ruin the fun for your friends or family.

My aim in this article is to point out the toxic aspects of Fiesta Drunkness. Particularly to minors (those below the age of 18) who often slip between the cracks and can participate in Carnival festivities, including indulging in alcohol and alcoholic beverages whilst participating.

1. “The Culture”

Many times, the issue of underage drinking is shrugged off and ignored as many use our Caribbean heritage as a reason for why we shouldn’t make a big deal of it. What is more shocking is that many Caribbean government officials don’t even seem to bother to take the next step to enforce this principle.

Yes, the law says that products containing alcohol are illegal to allow minors under the age of 18 to consume, yet at parties and festivals minors are still sold these beverages. We often create what I call a never-ending cycle as we make claims like “you know how teenagers are” and “I’m sure you guys were like that at your age.”

Sometimes these statements are fairly accurate. Teenagers are globally known for experimenting with alcohol. The only difference is the responsibility that lawmakers place on keeping alcoholic beverages out of their hands and mouths. From my experience (having spent a great deal of time in the U.S. Virgin Islands) a concerted effort is made by many shopkeepers and operators at booths during Carnival to decrease the frequency of underage drinking. Minors are not allowed in clubs and people generally have to show identification to enter club settings.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about other Caribbean countries. St.Kitts and Nevis for instance, a beautiful island federation, my home town, scores very lowly on the enforcement of underage drinking and club admittance to minors.

As a substance abuse, mental health and alcohol peer educator at the University of the Virgin Islands I noticed the hard work in the awareness that was done by SAMHSA and the peer and health education department at the University of the Virgin Islands to ensure that not only students but the Virgin Island community understood this serious issue.

I can only be left with the assumption that the same level of awareness has not been raised in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis so this article will also highlight some of the effects that teens face when exposed to underage drinking and admittance to adult parties.

Senator Javan James recently sponsored a bill that would amend punishment for driving under the influence saying, “this bill would increase DUI fines by $200 for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders minimum prison time will increase from 48 consecutive hours to 72 consecutive hours as well as a maximum fine increasing from $2,000 to $4,000 and the minimum fine from $600 to $800 if involved in an accident.”

Bill No. 33-0224 increases the fines for selling or serving alcoholic beverages to minors and was passed favorably.

2. Alcoholism and Addiction

Addiction is a complex disease of the brain which is characterized by heavy and compulsive use of a substance despite risks to cognitive, physical and social health. Caribbean youth are far more likely to become addicted to alcohol than most youth around the world. This is largely due to the importance placed on alcohol during festivals like Carnival and the regionally lax approach in enforcing consumption among teens.

Studies have shown that individuals who first use alcohol before age 15 are at an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorders. Underage drinkers are susceptible to immediate consequences of alcohol use, including blackouts, hangovers, and alcohol poisoning and are at elevated risk of neurodegeneration (particularly in regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory). Other effects can arise as impairments in functional brain activity, and the appearance of neurocognitive deficits. Heavy episodic or binge drinking impairs study habits and erodes the development of transitional skills to adulthood including the intellectual and social development of a person.

3. Higher Frequency of Teen Violence

As a guidance counselor and teacher at a local school in Nevis, I was petrified to attend jams, parties or festivals. My hesitation came because I knew I would see a student and that student would see me jamming and fetting and then bring it up the following week at school. As a teacher that is one of the most awkward moments that you can have and what ends up happening is that I usually dance my way to the gate and go home.

On one particular incident during a pre-culturama event in Nevis called Wet Fete, I noticed that the festivities were being shut down due to an incident occurring near the stage. In my mind, I asked, “Why people can’t come out and have peaceful fun?” Three days later the news broke that the incident was involving three or four young men still in high school. Individuals who probably indulged in alcohol but also had no business being in an adult party. Ironically, the violence was not perpetrated by an adult but by teens who were admitted into the party and served alcohol. The teens should have never made it into the club.

4. Higher Incidents of Sexual Assault in Minors

Another very serious and often ignored consequence of allowing minors into adult parties and then serving them alcohol can lead to incidences of sexual assault and misconduct. Young girls and boys below the age of consent are admitted into these parties and consume alcohol in the company of potential predators. Once intoxicated, it is not only easier for pedophiles and predators to take advantage of these children, but it also is very likely for the assault to go unreported or unsolved.

Sexual assaults in the Caribbean don’t always get the attention they deserve. Children are especially terrified of admitting these incidents particularly in situations where they were drinking because of the fear of authoritarian style parenting. Consequently, silent victims are created. These young boys and girls carry the baggage of their abuse for years, it affects future relationships, it creates the likelihood of alcohol and substance abuse and it breaks the trust they have of people in society, people who should know that our children deserve to be protected.

These consequences are just a few of the most serious effects associated with underage drinking and the admittance of minors into adult parties. However, since I like to view myself as presenting both problems and solutions; the following will include four ways in which individuals and governments throughout the Caribbean can protect our children and prevent or limit underage drinking.

1. Require Identification for Admittance into Parties Serving Alcohol

This is the most powerful deterrent. If club and event promoters required staff to check for proper identification at the entrance, individuals below the age of consent are prevented from entry thus limiting the exposure to alcohol. This solution only works if ushers and security guards strictly enforce the policy.

2. Colored Bands for Minors

If party promoters can’t stand to lose the buck that children and minors bring, then the least that can be done upon identifying a minor is to ensure that he or she wears a colored band or stamp to allow vendors to know that they are minors. Although vendors should also be asking for identification before serving alcohol as the law suggests.

3. Separate Carnival Events for Children

Having themed nights for children and teens can ensure that children not using or abusing alcohol but it’s less likely they will be exposed to potential predators and pedophiles who seek to prey on children during these gatherings. 

4. Spread awareness on the Issue of Underage Drinking

We should not assume that everyone understands the seriousness of this issue. As mentioned by Professor Reid at the University of the West Indies, alcohol consumption is ingrained in Caribbean culture and as we know, culture can be a difficult thing to change. While there are many aspects of culture that should not be changed, the toxic aspects need to be scorned and thrown out.

There is currently a petition that has been formed by a group called Nevisians for the Fair Treatment of Youth. Signing this petition would be an instrumental first step for those who agree that the issue of underage drinking can no longer be ignored. We need to stop treating our children as collateral damage. We must also stop blaming our culture for toxic traits. It is time that we as a Caribbean community do better.