Calling Time on Alcohol Policy

It’s easy to be taken in by headlines. Not least when they’re about something that most of us enjoy: a few drinks. With headlines such as “Binge drinking costs NHS billions”, not to mention the Daily Mail’s propensity towards ‘hell in a hand-cart’ stories complete with photos of drunken young women sprawled on benches, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain is in the midst of a binge drinking epidemic.  Young people – those lager louts and alcopop-swigging girls – usually seem to take the lion’s share of the blame.

The statistics tell a different story, though. Overall alcohol consumption per capita in the UK peaked in 2004, and has declined since then – a trend that began noticeably earlier than the the current recession, when reduced consumer spending of all kinds could be expected. In real terms, alcohol is less expensive, mainly due to a shift in sales from pubs to supermarkets. And from 2003, we’ve also had 24 hour licensing laws, resulting in the demise of the mandatory 11pm call for last orders at the bar. So alcohol is less expensive and available for more of the day, yet we’re actually drinking less of it. It’s not even as if this trend masks a more specific problem of youth binge drinking. Alcohol consumption among men aged 16-24 has been declining sharply and consistently ever since 1998 (from 26 units per week then to 15 now). Some reports suggest that, despite perceptions, it’s the baby boomer generation who are more likely to overdo the booze. 

Singling out and demonizing young people by the hand-wringing rightwing press is unfair and misleading. But this isn’t to say that there isn’t a problem with the drinking patterns of young people, or that these patterns can’t be changed for the better. What policies could foster a healthier drinking culture amongst young people? My argument is that, far from helping, stricter ID laws (such as ‘Think 25’) have the exact opposite of their intended effect, and exacerbate an unhealthy drinking culture. Instead, the government ought to ‘call time’ on this approach, and instead reduce the legal drinking age from 18 to 16.

When I was 16-17, it was relatively easy to get served in many pubs – illegally, of course. By the time my peers and I reached 18, we were familiar with pub culture, how to behave when drinking in a public place, and the risks (i.e. getting chucked out or worse) of not doing so.  It’s become much more difficult since then. A friend of mine who worked for years behind a university bar claims that this change could be seen in the way freshers drank. They began turning up, aged 18, with very little experience of pubs or how to behave in them, whilst drinking just as much as previous students – much of it in their rooms instead of the bar. This is because making access to pubs more difficult doesn’t reduce under age drinking, it just drives it into homes – or parks and wasteland – with cheap supermarket spirits. Young people who are excluded from pubs may well never come back to them even when they are old enough, and instead develop a potentially more dangerous pattern of drinking exclusively at home. The current trend away from pub sales and towards supermarkets, not to mention runaway pub closures, appears to back this up.

Allowing 16 and 17 year olds to legally drink in pubs, in a supervised environment, would be a good way of teaching young people to drink responsibly. For this to work, it would have to be limited to pubs only – not supermarkets or off-licences. But this would be no bad thing; the supermarkets are already powerful and profitable enough as it is, whereas pubs – many of them struggling small businesses – could use the extra income. Ideally, it would exclude sales of unmixed spirits and shots, although I accept that this aspect may be difficult to enforce. It should also exclude clubs, where antisocial behaviour or excessive consumption may go unobserved more easily.

It’s a given that there’d be a lot of opposition to such a policy. The big supermarkets and off licence chains would hate it for a start, and they’re a powerful lobbying voice. Some would claim that it would merely increase alcohol use in a society that already drinks too much. Others may argue that, whatever the benefits, pubs are an adult environment and should remain so. But how can we expect 16 and 17 year olds to act responsibly if society treats them like children? How can it be right that you can legally have sex, join the army or even get married at 16, but can’t buy a drink at your own wedding reception? 

In a society that always seems to believe the worst about young people, the temptation is to turn the screws ever tighter, make alcohol ever more difficult to legally obtain. This is the prevailing attitude in a society seemingly run by and for the now ageing and suspicious baby boomers. But like all prohibitionists, those who support this deny the reality of consumption. Much like cannabis, or the sex trade, consumption already exists. In the same way that the ‘war on drugs’ hasn’t reduced drug taking, stricter drinking laws haven’t stopped young people obtaining and using alcohol. It just relegates it from the controlled environment of the pub to the unregulated and dangerous sphere of the alley or park. If we accept that drinking alcohol is a part of our culture, it’s nonsensical to deny young people a setting in which to learn to do it responsibly. It’s not about whether we should ‘encourage’ consumption or attempt to curtail it. It’s about being pragmatic, realistic, and for want of a better word – adult – when it comes to booze.