We are not a nation of binge drinkers—and new plans to make us drink less will not workby Jamie Bartlett / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Some young adults are stupendous drinkers, but over the last decade Britons in general have toned it down
Ever since we discovered the joys of drinking alcohol, our leaders have worried we enjoy it too much. In the mid-tenth century, King Edgar introduced the first recorded law to curb drunkenness, limiting how much people could drink by putting pegs inside the horns from which they drank. There since followed 1,000 years of usually failed attempts to regulate when, where, and how much we drink—up to the “24-hour café-culture” Licensing Act of 2003.
The latest targets are binge drinkers. Since the Daily Mail declared war on them in 2005, when the act came fully into force, rarely a day passes without a story of society’s alcohol-fuelled slide into the moral abyss, or of A&E departments overflowing. In response to a perceived binge drinking epidemic, the coalition will launch a new alcohol strategy later this year, and a low-intensity campaign is being waged by public health professionals to make sure this strategy is as tough as possible.
But is the problem really that bad? For all the sound and fury, you are unlikely to be greeted by Hogarth’s Gin Alley on leaving the house—because Brits are actually sobering up. Total alcohol consumption has fallen almost every year since 2005, and most quickly among young people. “Binge-drinking” (technically drinking more than four pints in one session if you are a man, three if a woman) is in steady decline, and last year alcohol-related deaths also fell.
So why is it such a concern? Localised studies show that there is a small, but possibly growing, number of young adults who are drinking stupendous amounts of alcohol, and often in an intentionally reckless and irresponsible way. More of them are engaging in low-level antisocial behaviour, and ending up in A&E. Certain city centres have become much more rowdy than they were (although to be fair, many of these city centres were also once devoid of life).
Over the last decade, Britons in general have become more moderate drinkers, while a small group have become more far less so. Opinion polls suggest that people increasingly believe alcohol-related disorder is a serious problem in their neighbourhood. It is this sense of public disorder and moral decadence which is exercising the government, public and the media.
The Conservative party’s pre-election policy to sort out binge drinking out was…