Another wrong move in the war against teenage binge drinking
by Julia Margo
This is a cross-post from Thusmagazine.com to which Julia Margo, Head of Demos’ Capabilities Programme, is a regular contributor.
Much recent research has explored the causes of youth binge drinking. Work at Sheffield University has suggested that “cheap alcohol is the single biggest driver of alcohol harms”, so shortly the government will unveil plans to ban the sale of cheap alcohol and thus end the Binge Drinking Culture. I doubt this will work.
The single biggest cause of ‘alcohol harm’, ‘binge drinking’ or whatever other label we like to place on this not-so-rare phenomenon is the fact that people – teenagers in particular – like to get sloshed of an evening.
We can fiddle the pricing system, run educative campaigns about the ill effects of alcohol use, use punitive interventions such as on the spot fines and stop supermarket discounts (as the policing and crime bill will do). We could even ban selling alcohol to under 21s, as Boris Johnson is reportedly in favour of. But I guarantee that this will not work (cf North America who shares our statistics on underage drinking for the compelling evidence as to why the latter will not).
Young people like getting drunk and will simply switch product of choice if they can no longer afford their White Lightning or 20/20: they will club together and buy a bottle of vodka. They think the law is boring and that the police are as cool as parents and as important to avoid when under the influence. Many of them take illegal substances such as Cannabis about as often as they drink a beer (Cannabis is both illegal and much more expensive than booze but it doesn’t put them off). We are barking up the wrong tree.
So what to do? First, I would suggest we stop printing weekly pictures of mini-skirted young girls on a debauched night out as if this was worth reading about or representative of most modern youth. I believe the media is normalising the idea of binge drinking and making those young people who aren’t drinking copiously feel like they are missing out or are failing to live up to social expectations. For this I reference excellent work in US universities by Cass Sunstein, which shows that when new students are told that their campus has a culture of binge drinking, they drink much more than peers who are told that alcohol is considered uncool. I have barely read a newspaper or watched TV in the last two years without encountering some reference to the extent of the British binge drinking culture: it certainly sounds like all the cool kids are doing it, even though the statistics suggest that the vast majority of young people are not (yet).
Second, the best research from the behavioural sciences suggests that young people are more likely to drink heavily when parents or other familiar adults or role models do. So let’s take some responsibility here and stop blaming young people for internalising behavioural norms set by us. It is well known that the UK has an adult binge drinking culture that is the shame of Europe and I never drank so much in my life as when I was working in Parliament in my early 20s and hanging out with purple-nosed MPs.
Third, forget academic research, policy analysts and psychologists; successful advertising agencies understand youth culture like no other organisation and have become increasingly adept at marketing a host of useless products, clothes and lifestyles to impressionable teenagers and children. The government should appoint a crack team (hopefully not literally, JK) of the most successful advertising executives currently moulding the youth market and task them with devising a strategy to sell sobriety and clean fun to the younger generation.
Fourth, rather than paying out for yet more ‘qualitative research’ with young binge drinkers to work out why they do it, I would like the ongoing government review of this issue currently being led from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to fund some research with young people who – despite the unremitting peer pressure, public expectation and easy availability of booze – do not binge drink, and find out why. I believe it would be very informative.
(Photo credit: Mark Turner)