Publish date: Sep 2015

A recent report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that young people aged 16 to 24 are  drinking alcohol less frequently,  and when they do drink they drink less. Between 2005 and 2013 there was an increase of approximately 40% in the number of young people who were teetotalers, and the proportion of young people reporting binge drinking dropped by a third (although they are still the age group most likely to binge drink).Similar declines have been seen in underage drinkers. Between 2003 and 2013 the number of school pupils who reported drinking at least once in their lives fell by 22% to 39%. Interestingly there has been little change in drinking among older adults. The image of a binge-drinking nation portrayed in the media seems to no longer represent the young people of today, and a number of explanations have been proposed: 

Cultural shifts and increasing immigration

Increasing immigration to the UK from communities that do not drink alcohol (e,g, Muslims and Sikhs) has been proposed as a factor in reducing overall drinking trends.

Changing attitudes and social activities amongst young people

A recent DEMOS report argues that the attitude of young people towards social drinking may be changing. A  survey conducted by YouGov of 16-24 year olds in the UK suggests that the majority of young people (66%) do not consider alcohol an important aspect of their social lives. Furthermore two-thirds of people surveyed thought that one of the reasons for the reduction in alcohol use was an increased awareness in the health consequences of drinking. 

Reduced opportunities for young people to buy alcohol

Another contributing factor may be that underage drinking has been targeted in recent years, with new schemes such as ‘Challenge 21’ being brought in to reduce the availability of alcohol to under 18’s.

Public health campaigns

Recent public health campaigns may have also played a part. The Charity Drinkaware have targeted underage drinkers as well as releasing a free app to help monitor alcohol use. Alcohol Concern have run campaigns such as 'It's the Drink Talking' for 13-24 year olds that explored the wider issues related to alcohol that impact on society and the individual. However, without an independent evaluation of such campaigns it is difficult to quantify their effectiveness.

Government policy

In 2012, the Coalition Government announced their Alcohol Strategy to tackle alcohol misuse and binge drinking across the UK. The key actions included:

  • giving local agencies the resources and powers to tackle alcohol-related harm at the local level,  
  • ensuring that the alcohol industry takes on a greater responsibility in tackling alcohol related harm,
  • promoting growth of responsible businesses and  increasing individual–level awareness through social marketing campaigns and a review of the drinking guidelines.

Overall, it is likely that reductions in drinking in young people are due to a combination of these factors. Whilst these reductions are a positive step towards reducing the risks associated with alcohol, young adults still have the highest level of binge-drinking in the UK, and, Britain’s binge-drinking levels are still among the highest in Europe. Furthermore liver disease in everyday drinkers under 30 (as opposed to alcohol dependent drinkers) continues to rise. Research suggests that young people have little understanding of what the recommended drinking limits are, and research from Alcohol Research UK suggests that online marketing and packaging of alcohol continues to contribute to the normalisation of excessive consumption and potentially risky drinking behaviours.

There is clearly still work to be done, and DEMOS suggest the key is to develop a society of responsible drinkers from an early age. The thinktank conducted a series of roundtable event exploring the relationship between ‘character skills’ and reductions in problematic drinking. The conclusion was that early adoption in schools of ‘character building’ to improve self-control in young people would  increase responsible drinking choices in the future generations.

 

Joanna Milward, King's College London

Further resources

Read the ONS Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain Report, 2013 HERE

Read the full DEMOS report HERE

Read the 2012 Government Alcohol Strategy HERE

 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs- ESPAD Reports

The opinions expressed in this commentary reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official positions of the Society for the Study of Addiction.