Conspicuous consumption

Our culture regards getting drunk as a prerequisite to having a
good time – a tradition many young people are keen to continue,
despite the risks. Sarah Wellard reports.

If you’re out in any town centre on a Friday or Saturday
night, you’ll observe one of our great British institutions –
going out with your mates and getting drunk. From recent media
focus you might think this is a wholly new phenomenon, but binge
drinking is nothing new and is by no means unique to Britain. As
Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies and director of the
Alcohol and Health Research Trust, University of the West of
England, points out: “Basically what’s happening is that
young people are learning from an earlier age to drink in a way
that’s part of our British culture,” he says. “It’s a
north west European thing – we’re in there with the Danes,
Norwegians and Finns.”

Plant believes the increase in binge drinking among young people
is partly a knock-on effect of the surge in alcohol consumption
that occurred after the second world war. More young people now
have parents who are themselves heavy drinkers, and parents who
drink heavily or abstain completely are more likely to have heavy
drinking children than are people who drink in moderation.

Disposable income is also a factor. Plant says: “What’s
new is the increased spending power among 15 year olds. It’s
not uncommon for them to have £30 to £50 a week pocket
money.” But it’s not just kids with plenty of money to spend
who are drinking more. Alcohol is cheap. A pair of teenagers with
only a fiver between them can get out of their heads on cider or
lager from the corner shop.

Alcohol Concern is alarmed by the increase in alcohol
consumption among children and teenagers, and especially binge
drinking. Development officer Nicola Sinclair points out that that
there are no recommended limits for children and says we know
little about the effects of alcohol on bodies which are still
developing. What we do know gives cause for concern – for example,
children go into coma at lower blood alcohol levels than adults.
Young people who have been drinking are more likely to have an
accident, get into a fight or have unprotected sex. New research
from Northern Ireland shows that a quarter of 15 and 16 year olds
in the province have been in trouble with the police after

Sinclair says: “It’s not just that children’s bodies
are less able to deal with alcohol but that they face dangers when
they drink large amounts away from adult supervision, in parks or
by roads or rivers. Their inexperience makes them less able to deal
with the effects of alcohol and they are likely to get into
trouble. They may not be prepared for the way alcohol will affect
their judgement, leading for example to risky sexual

Pam Vedhara, youth inclusion programme (Yip) manager in South
Tyneside, says it is naïve to think there is any simple
solution. Levels of alcohol consumption in the North East are the
highest in the UK. “Binge drinking is the biggest factor in
antisocial behaviour and disorder. We see week in week out the
effects of it – vandalism, fights. Every occasion from birth to
death is celebrated with drink. We measure people by alcohol,
‘he can’t hold his drink’. How can you undo the
basic values of the culture?”

Vedhara has just launched a campaign backed by the Youth Justice
Board as well as local partners to increase children’s
understanding of alcohol. “The project is not initially about
reducing the amount they drink,” she explains. “It’s designed
to tell them what alcohol is about and sensible drinking. Most of
the young people we come across, regardless of their offending
behaviour, have been bombarded with stuff about lots of substances.
But nobody ever tells them anything useful about drink.”

The campaign, known as Think Drink! combines awareness raising
among teenagers with peer education for primary school children.
Groups of 13 and 14 year olds, including young offenders, a girls
group, Muslim young people and a group from a Roman Catholic school
are embarking on an eight week Open College accredited course on
issues such as alcohol and health, sex and alcohol and alcohol and
the law. As part of the course they will be involved in making a
video, a website and posters focusing on healthy drinking messages.
Some of the participants will then go into primary schools to talk
about drinking.

Vedhara believes that peer education is an effective way of
getting young people to listen to a message, and the peer educators
themselves benefit from increased self-esteem. “If you watch a
video that has been produced to near professional quality and the
people who made it are the big people in your classroom, it’s
extremely powerful,” she says. But from experience with young
people in the Yip she knows how difficult it is to change drinking
behaviour. “We try to get people to see the connection between
drinking at seven thirty and being locked up at half past ten.
It’s a drip, drip, drip approach but I wouldn’t pretend
we’ve had huge levels of success. Their drinking simply
mirrors the social behaviour of the adults they see.”

According to Sinclair, there are examples of education
programmes which have been effective. But overall, research
suggests that most public education is ineffective. Hardly
surprising given the billions spent by the drinks industry on
advertising and the low priority accorded by the government to
healthy drinking messages compared say with drugs education. So
far, government curbs on advertising have left alcohol alone,
although this may change when the new strategy on alcohol is
published later this year.

Plant believes the way forward is to focus on controls on public
drinking and stricter enforcement of licensing such as penalties
for serving underage customers or people who are already drunk. He
says: “At the level of individual pubs and bars there is a lot of
irresponsible marketing with no concern for the consequences, like
happy hours and clubs which offer young women free drinks all
night. It’s on the streets where a lot of the trouble happens
– in the queues for buses and taxis and fast food.” He adds: “Kids
are always going to push at the limits. The ideal way is to put
some controls around the places where they do drink.”

Children and alcohol

  • There has been a big increase in “binge drinking” among
    children and young people, with almost a third of 15 and 16 year
    olds drinking more than five drinks on a single occasion in the
    last week – an increase of nearly 50 per cent over eight
  • The numbers of younger children drinking alcohol has remained
    relatively static over the past 15 years. Some 40 per cent of 11 to
    15 year olds say they have never had a drink.
  • Children and teenagers who drink are drinking more – up from
    5.3 units a week in 1990 to 10.5 units in 2002.
  • One in eight 11-13 year olds are drinking an average of nearly
    seven units a week – a 100 per cent increase in a decade.
  • 50 per cent of 15 year old boys drink on average the equivalent
    of seven pints of beer a week. 
  • One in seven over-16s say they have had unprotected sex after
  • One in eight 15 and 16 year olds have been injured or involved
    in an accident after drinking.

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