The most recent study among schoolchildren, by the Health & Social Care Information Centre, shows that 45% of 11 to 15-year-olds admit to having ever tasted alcohol, down from 61% just 10 years ago.
Only 6% now drink weekly, down from 19%, and in the week prior to the survey just 10% had drunk alcohol. In 2003 the figure was 25%.
Hot on the heels of that research, a paper focused on Sunderland – one of those towns where drink has supposedly taken a grip on youth – revealed that the number of 15-year- olds consuming between seven and 14 units a week had fallen from 21% in 1996 to 8% in 2010. A mere 1% were drinking more than that.
Even teenage girls are letting the headline writers down. Among 15-year-old females 37% said they had taken a drink in the previous week, down from 65%.
All this supports evidence from last year’s General Lifestyle Survey, in which alcohol consumption among their older siblings, aged 16 to 24, had declined by around a third since 2005.
These are significant, consistent figures reflecting the kind of cultural change that nearly everyone has been demanding from Binge Britain. But why is it happening?
Don’t expect too much credit to come your way, but certainly retailers have played their part. Only 14% of drinking shoolchildren buy their booze from an off-licence. There’s still work to do there, obviously, but in 1996 that was the most common way of under-age drinkers obtaining alcohol.
Now it’s friends and relatives who supply, followed sinisterly by those simply described as “someone else”.
It suggests that, as social responsibility training and proof-of-age schemes have improved, and retailers have grown more professional, the under-age have either given up or turned to proxy purchasers – much harder for licensees to control.
But making it harder for young people to access alcohol is only part of the story. Underlying attitudes to drink are also changing dramatically. Since 2003 the number of schoolchildren who think it’s OK for them to drink once a week has dropped from 46% to 28%. Drinking is considered less acceptable, and getting drunk even more so. The number who think that’s OK has halved from 20% to 10%.
The same survey indicates similar trends for smoking and drug use, too. Traditional psychoactive substances are just not so cool any more.
This could be the Clean Generation. Or at least the Cleaner Generation. Research is still catching up with the fashion for legal highs such as inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, and the new drugs that are being invented all the time to stay ahead of the law.
Top-line statistics about alcohol use probably disguise a more complex and contradictory situation, too. Declining consumption overall appears in large part to be driven by an increasing number of abstainers, now 19% of 16 to 24-year-olds, while there is a suggestion from some research that youngsters who drink heavily are consuming a little more.
And alcohol still plays a role in youth culture that’s difficult to shake. Evidence from Drinkaware points to a divergence between attitudes to drink and actual behaviour. While drinking occasions may be fewer, there are times when alcohol seems an inescapable part of growing up.
Half of those schoolchildren who drink get drunk, and 61% of them said they’d done so deliberately – 40% to the point of making themselves ill. Most drank to be sociable or for the “buzz”.
So there are positive benefits to drinking that continue to override the discomforts and disapproval.
An interesting new piece of research from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health digs a little deeper into this in trying to divine the impact of pricing on youth drinking in Scotland.
Its interviews with young people brought out a variety of responses, but many, it seems, are prepared to pay a higher price to drink.
Respondents might acknowledge the damaging consequences of getting drunk but, in the same breath, it’s seen as a necessary part of a young person’s lifestyle, allowing them to explore their own identity and cement friendships, easing the transition to full adulthood.
Crucially, the young people were conscious that such excessive consumption is appropriate only in their early drinking years. It’s not going to continue far into their 20s, so it isn’t really a problem.
Asked specifically about what impact minimum unit pricing might have on their drinking they fell into two groups. Some saw it as giving them positive encouragement to move on from a way of drinking they already saw as “immature”. But those who continued to value the social aspects of getting drunk predicted they would “reconfigure” their consumption so they could continue to afford it, for instance by saving up for the big night.
As the authors of the Glasgow study point out, all this casts doubt on the alleged impact of minimum pricing. Already advocates have felt the need to elaborate on its initial conception as a policy that would reduce harm and consumption across the whole population. Now it’s more a policy
that will target young binge drinkers. But the effect may be even more complicated than that. Not only will retailers finesse their promotions programmes to maximise a profitable outcome but consumers, too, will deploy considered strategies to preserve a lifestyle that includes episodes of heavy consumption. The idea that higher pricing will reduce overall consumption is hardly revolutionary, but any straightforward extrapolation of reduced harm is likely to be confounded by the cultures within which people make decisions about drink.
And that goes especially for youth cultures. Young people are drinking less, and minimum pricing might well encourage them to continue to do so. But it won’t necessarily stop them getting drunk when the occasion demands. And, for a few, that might develop into a serious problem.
The broad-brush generalisations of current alcohol policy seem unable to cope with that.
And as for the headlines, they’re turning their anxiety towards older drinkers, lately reporting on the call for lower recommended drinking limits for the over-65s. It seems like we’ve always got to have some- thing to worry about.