Tackling Scotland’s drinking culture

The Scottish government has opened a discussion on how to reduce alcohol use. So far the debate has been about whether to educate or penalise young people, writes Anabel Unity Sale

A refrain of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands” echoes around the packed carriage of commuters on a late Friday afternoon train between Stirling and Edinburgh. Enthusiastic professionals celebrating the end of another working week? No. The chorus comprises a 25-strong group of mainly 12- to 17-year-olds fuelled by the bonhomie of alcohol.

Sitting near them is 30-year-old Alex Cole-Hamilton, head of policy for Scottish children’s charity Aberlour and Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh North. The irony of the scene is not lost on him as we discuss the Scottish government’s recent proposals to tackle alcohol use in the country. As we talk about the discussion paper Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol one of the teenagers overhears us. Soon there are shouts of “liar” and “no”.

Last month the consultation closed on the Scottish government’s ideas to “re-balance” the country’s use of alcohol. Writing in the consultation paper’s foreword, deputy first minister and cabinet secretary for health and well-being Nicola Sturgeon recognises that the proposals are ambitious but states the government will not shirk from a challenge that costs billions of pounds to deal with and affects thousands of people.

Scottish identity

Although its detailed suggestions cover all age ranges, the document highlights what can be specifically done to address alcohol misuse among young people. It says the Scottish government wants to “protect our children and young people from the harm caused by alcohol misuse and support them to make positive choices”. A recent audit of Scottish emergency departments, it notes, found that nearly 650 children were treated for alcohol-related problems over a five-week period. This included 15 children aged under 12 and one child aged just eight.

Alcohol is intrinsically linked to Scottish identity. The Scottish government itself says in the paper that “alcohol is an important part of Scottish culture and national identity, that is enjoyed by most adults in Scotland”. Unfortunately, there is a large number of young Scots who have a long, and sometimes difficult, relationship with alcohol, says Cole-Hamilton.

“A lot of young people mimic the behaviour of those around them, and this attitude towards alcohol is something young people have picked up and is ingrained into their own culture,” he says.

Ruth Stark, professional officer (Scotland) for the British Association of Social Workers, and someone who moved to Scotland from England 30 years ago, also believes it is a cultural issue for the country. She says it stems from the time when working men would leave their jobs at 5pm and stay in the pub until closing time, getting drunk. “Then there was the move to longer opening hours but the awareness did not change. The real change has to come around the culture of drinking, not the availability of alcohol,” she says.

Differing European attitudes

Dr Bruce Ritson, chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, says Scotland – and the UK overall – struggles to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. “It is to do with alcohol being outlawed and young people not having it until they are 18. If as a society we were more open about getting children to try alcohol in our homes it may be easier.” He cites the different attitude to alcohol in some European countries where children are allowed to try small amounts with family meals as a way of normalising it. This is widely thought to reduce the risk of binge drinking among young people.

One of the most controversial proposals in the document is to raise the minimum age people can buy alcohol in shops and off-licences to 21.

Ritson says it would be a “courageous and bold move”, and argues there is global evidence that doing so would lead to a reduction in drink-related crimes. “We can look at it in a way that society has a responsibility to care for young people and alcohol has an impact on the developing brains of the young. It is a move in the right direction.”

However, the idea is not backed by all. David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, the social responsibility body for UK drinks producers, argues that demonising alcohol and turning it into a social taboo will not combat misuse.

Gesture politics

Instead, he says, it may make alcohol more appealing to the young. His stance is supported by Stark, who says that if young people want to drink alcohol they will – regardless of how old they are, and where they can buy it from.

Mike Pringle, MSP for Edinburgh South, calls the proposal “a stupid idea”. He argues that if the plan succeeds it may result in a confusing situation where a person aged 20 is refused alcohol at an off-licence but is served in the pub next door. “This is gesture politics of the worst kind it’s about trying to get a soundbite.” He says young people in his constituency perceive the proposal as an unjustified attack on them, and one that is unlikely to get parliamentary support.

Instead, he says a tougher line should be taken with shopkeepers who break the law by selling alcohol to under-18s, with those who transgress losing their licences. Ritson also favours stronger enforcement of laws regarding underage drinking and supports a ban on alcohol advertising in sport, like the one imposed for tobacco.

Young people’s project

For Stark the answer lies in educating young people and their families about the dangers of excessive drinking instead of tinkering with legislation. “I would rather have a health education programme than a change of the law, which isn’t that enforceable anyway. We need to help young people understand that drinking socially is OK but not to excess.”

Extending the work Aberlour does to divert young people from alcohol is something Cole-Hamilton is in favour of. In the Greater Pollack area of Glasgow, the charity runs a young people’s project led by service manager Alex Cunningham. Cunningham says by offering information, advice and social activities to 11-18 year olds they are able to show them “there is an alternative to the drink culture”.

The project works to engage young people in “hot spots”, as identified by local police and housing associations, in the socially deprived area and give them more meaningful activities that draw them away from underage drinking and antisocial behaviour. It runs weekly evening football sessions and a cybercafé which, Cunningham says, prove very popular with the young people because they enjoy the activities.

More information on alcohol abuse

More about Aberlour


Government proposals

● Raise the minimum age for buying alcohol in off-licences and shops to 21.

● Introduce minimum retail pricing of alcohol.

● End irresponsible alcohol promotions and below-cost sale of alcohol in venues.

● Introduce a social responsibility fee for some alcohol retailers to offset the costs of addressing the consequences of alcohol misuse.

More from Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alcohol 

Alcohol in scotland

● The total cost of alcohol misuse in Scotland in 2006-7 was estimated at £2.25bn, and the cost to the NHS £400m.

● 40% of 15-year-olds and 15% of 13-year-olds admitted they drank alcohol in the previous week.

● One in six of those 15-year-olds who drank alcohol said they had tried drugs and one in seven reported they had had unprotected sex after drinking alcohol.

● 65,000 Scottish children are estimated to live with a parent who drinks problematically.

This article is published in the 9 October edition of Community Care under the headline “Bottle blues”


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