Page last updated: Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Alcohol and Young People (speech given at the AIM Conference Oct 2004 by Helena Conibear)
Education messages on alcohol to young people – how do we get through?

As a parent of two young children, the objective of establishing a healthy attitude to, respect of as well as enjoyment of alcohol is particularly close to my heart.

I suppose a good place to start is with definitions of that broad term ‘ ‘young people’. Who are we talking about?

. 8 - curiosity, little inclination to try

Children may witness their parents consumption of alcohol. Most under eight year olds think alcohol tastes ‘strong’ or even disgusting, but it is

Still important to explain that alcohol is poisonous to young bodies and it is something they may enjoy as they get bigger.

8-11 - Parental example is fundamental here. Many children experience their first drink in the home or at a celebration under family supervision.

11-15 - The average age for drinking a whole drink in the UK is 12.4 years, hence it is a crucial age for alcohol education, before drinking patterns are established. The Office of National Statistics states ‘ beer lager and cider are the most popular types of alcohol drunk by boys and girls age 11-15

15-18 - 80% of 15 year olds drink alcohol and 33% report getting drunk.

We have to accept in our messaging that most 15 year olds drink, The AERC have founding their research that a message of don’t drink is counter productive.

Teenagers are generally :

savvy and street wise


Relatively Wealthy and Materialistic

Technically aware

Cite TV and media as most influential after parents, but they are cynical about adverts

Life is fast – fast food – everything now culture

Parents at home less, but they are still the greatest influence on their behaviour

Know their rights – less respect for teachers, police or who we may term as traditional peers.

Lager, beer and spirits are the most common drinks for 15 – 17 year olds with "alcopops" accounting for just 6% to 9%. (Source: Alcohol Concern. Teenage Drinkers- A follow-up study of alcohol use among 15-17 year olds in England. January 2003)

18-24 - Of legal drinking age. However, they are the category exhibiting the highest percentage of anti-social behaviour and binge-drinking (39% 18-24 year olds regularly binge drink)

This age group is In education for longer

More living at home ( irony of going out more to escape – Data monitor estimate that 18-24 year olds will drink in the on trade three nights a week by 2008 . 57% of 18 – 24 year olds live at home in Britain – but this is against an average of 90% in Italy and Spain.

Greater spending power but also Greater debt.

We can argue that the age of responsibility is being put off due to the expense of buying a home, student debt etc not to mention getting married and having children later.

18 – 24 year old women are drinking an average of 203 litres of wine a year ( 5 bottles a week) according to Datamonitor.

24- 30 – technically not in our group, but as mortgages, marriage and children are put off for longer the ‘singles hedonistic lifestyle’ period is lasting for longer.

Messages need to be tailored to meet each stage of young peoples development and to respond to their perceptions of alcohol

So having defined the characteristics of our group, what is the extent of the problem?

Teen generation will be world’s sickest adults

Adolecent Health reported in the BMJ

‘ Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to be overweight, indulge in binge drinking, have a sexually transmitted infection and suffer mental health problems..with a risk of dying younger than their parents’. The BMJ describes a generation let down by their parents, education and society.

(These findings have been echoed in the US, where obesity is set to overtake tobacco as the biggest cause of premature death).

In relation to drinking

The key here is that patterns of drinking are out of hand, as total consumption is relatively static. The prevailing culture amongst young people in Britain appears to be to go out at weekends and get slammed.

Has it ever been thus?

–Binge drinking accounts for 40% of young male drinking and 22% of female drinking in Britain

–33% of 15 year olds report getting drunk compared to one in ten French teenagers and Italian teenagers.

British teenagers tend to get drunk earlier than their European peers, except in Ireland and Denmark.

According to the Office of National Statistics ( O.N.S)

‘Since the late 1980’s there has been an increase in the proportion exceeding this level (weekly benchmarks). Almost entirely due to an increase among women .. (of 16- 24 year old women)… their rate more than doubled from 15% in 1988/89 to 33% in 2002/3 ( young men exceeding the weekly bench mark has risen 7% from 30% to 37%.

•In the UK 10% young women age 16 – 24 drink more than 35 units a week (up from 3% in 1998) - That is twice the daily guidelines

The total number of women exceeding these benchmarks remains minimal at 3% up from 2% a decade ago showing that all the growth is amongst young women. With 60% of them drinking the alcohol in one or two sessions a week.

Law and order

As well as the health implications of heavy drinking , there are the anti social consequences of drunken and disorderly behaviour by young people in our towns and streets.

It is estimated that

–There are 13,000 incidents in and around pubs and clubs every week

–Alcohol is linked to millions of fights a year and up to 70% of A& E admissions each weekend

We all see the headlines and the effects in our city centres week in week out

This behaviour is not restricted to Britain of course

•Binge drinking in Ireland for 15-16 year old rose to 57% in the 1990s

•89% of 15-16 year old Danes report being drunk

•Growth of Botellon in Spain – that is street parties where wine and coke mixed in plastic bottles – is the main drink, is a complete antithesis to the Mediterranean culture)

Motivations for young peoples drinking

•Sociable and fun

•Escaping parental control

•Life too safe and controlled (– risk is increasingly taken out of childrens lives)

•Rule breaking and looking for ways to rebel

•Anything might happen -an escapism and letting your inhibitions go

•Freedom and sexy

•Grown up

•Rites of Passage

•Following Peers example

These are not new motivations, so

why are damaging patterns growing?

If we go back 20 or 30 years ago, groups of individuals, mainly males, would go out for a drink. Drink was ancillary to the evening. Yes, they wanted to drink, but drink was ancillary to the evening. There was something, some informal pressure, that stopped people drinking to excess. In some way, you were less of a man if you got drunk, because it meant you couldn’t hold your drink.

Nowadays what we see in our towns and our villages and our city centres is large groups of both males and females going out with the sole intention of getting paralytic, of getting drunk. That is their raison d’être for the evening. Alcohol is the main part of the evening. The socialising is a by-product.

Commander Chris Allison, Association of Chief Police Officers

Westminster Diet and Health Forum September 2004

This is the crux

Excess as social performance has become norm –

It is no longer cool to hold your drink. This over indulgence is aided by role models such as Sara Cox, Oasis, Robbie Williams etc as well as TV programmes such as Ibiza uncovered an Big Brother. It is no longer cool to be controlled.

This is coupled with the ‘right’ of liberalised females to drink aggressively – who have better jobs, better education and are settling down later.

Young people are also relatively so well off

It can be argues that there is a lack of alternatives of other things to do.But it is deep in our culture that our Social life does revolve around drink

Other factors influencing the way we drink include the Environment

With the regeneration of city centres – often leading to a concentration of pubs and clubs rather than mixed environment. This has increased the danger of irresponsible promotion if there is over capacity – and the biggest club owner Luminar have recognised this and have called for a minimum pricing policy to prevent a minority of outlets promoting irresponsibly ( all you can drink for £10 etc).

A concentration of one age group if you don’t have cafes, restaurants and pubs/clubs mixed together also encourages excess.

The design of many outlets with little seating , or range of food or soft drinks also promotes the ‘vertical drinking culture’ – organisations such as the British Beer and Pub Association ( ) produce excellent guides on the importance of good design in venues and the difference it makes.

The on trade environment is further improved with good enforcement of measures,

There is no doubt that enforcement of the law is an effective deterrent to anti social behaviour as the crackdowns over the summer in the UK has shown. On the spot fines for unruly behaviour, the confiscation of open bottles, coupled with schemes such as Pubwatch whereby premises mutually ban troublemakers or drunks can get the message across that don’t blame the alcohol for your behaviour –there is no excuse.

Punishing of irresponsible retailers and premises is key as is the enforcement of ID checking and not serving drunks This together with crime and disorder partnerships with local police and councils who can work together to improve CCTV coverage, better lighting, adequate public transport and policing on the street really make a difference.

Erosion parental authority – want to be friends, working more ( although no link between working mothers and binge drinking) – don’t sit round the table and eat and drink together and as we will see, drinking is rarely discussed.

Lack of role models The influence of the church and social clubs such as guides, scouts, salvation army has declined. More likely to look to soap stars and sports celebrities as role models.

Which leads us onto

Who’s influencing attitudes to drinking?

All the recent research into youth drinking shows the overwhelming and hitherto under estimated importance of parents.

A report out last month found that ‘Respondents who drank with their parents were about half as likely to indicate that they had drunk alcohol in the last 30 days and about one-third as likely to binge drink. It appears that parents who model responsible drinking behaviours have the potential to teach their children the same’

6,245 US youths ages of 16 and 20 were asked about their alcohol usage and other drinking behaviours in the last 30 days. (SOURCE: Foley KL et al. Adults' approval and adolescents' alcohol use. Journal of Adolescent Health 2004; 35:345-6.)

Most parents don’t however.

The Urlich Teen Report Cards in the US found that although children rate their parents highly on giving them a good education and job opportunities, they give them the lowest grade possible on controlling their drinking (F grade).

This is reflected by both research from MEAS (Ireland) and the Century Council (USA), which shows parents under estimate both their influence and the fact that most under eighteens drink at home or at friends houses.

Parents presume kids used fake ID’s and vastly overestimated purchases in store. There is a lack of acceptance at present to accept or teach responsibility and most parents see drinking as less of a worry than under age pregnancy, drugs, anorexia or running away from home, talking about alcohol and its risks and pleasures on average just once to their children(MEAS).

Media and TV

Programmes such as Big Brother and Ibiza Uncovered re-enforce the message you are given is that it is social to be drunk..

Programming codes need to be looked and of course advertising codes on not appealing to underage drinkers must be adhered to. Ofcom’s new ‘firm but fair regulations for alcohol advertising should automatically bring adverts into line.

There is also a Lack of championing of good role models- either by the press or media. The hedonism of our stars , such as Robbie Williams, Sara Cox, Kate Moss, Charlotte Church are focused on.

We do have good role models such as Jonnie Wilkinson, Tim Henman, Kelly Holmes if more could be made of them. The media also have a role to play in ‘ social norming’ , which will be discussed later.

Schools and education

‘Achieving cultural or individual cultural change via the classroom is a tall order. Drinking is largely a social phenomenon and, in a young person world ,is often associated with recreation, rebellion, maturity, sexuality, relationships and emotional problems. For education about alcohol to be effective, the reality of the young persons’ world must be acknowledges, valued, and to some extent replicated in the classroom’

Alcohol Education Research Council

Most teenagers have a positive perception of alcohol through family, peer and role model example. and hence alcohol education has to revolve around creating a responsible attitude to alcohol through exploring the issues relevant to the group (being sick, getting home safely, accidents, unprotected sex, long term health consequences of bingeing). Parental regulation of home drinking is also key (parties, sleep overs).

If education through schools is going to have an impact , the Message that

Responsible drinking doesn’t have to mean having less of a good time must be the key with an emphasise on the fact that you are more likely to have a good time if merry rather than plastered.

The Curriculum should cover what a unit is, what sensible guidelines are, and how to cope with drinking situations.

We have to communicate via their wave length – texting , game boys, internet etc.

Lack of adult knowledge

Tied in with young people’s education is the Lack of adult knowledge Alcohol Concern claim that only 7% of men in Britain and 22% of women know what daily guidelines are and the MORI poll (2001 whereby 1500 people were polled on alcohol on behalf of the Portman Group). ) - 67% had never heard of daily benchmarks and only 15% claimed to know what they were. Similarly between 30% and 36% percent guessed correctly at the number of units in a half pint of beer or a glass of wine.

The first initiatives by the retail trade to improve knowledge for parents and consumers have just been launched by Waitrose. The John Lewis Partnership have introduced shelf barkers detailing sensible drinking guidelines and unit information in their wine, beer and spirits departments and are sponsoring AIM to produce a wise drinkers guide, which will be available in store. Many producers including Allied Domecq and Diageo now provide unit information on drinks and incorporate sensible drinking messages in their marketing in different forms. Most recently Scottish and Newcastle, Coors and Bacardi Martini are incorporating information on their packaging. But there is much to be done.

What are our objectives considering the facts

To grow up with a healthy attitude to alcohol – the Mediterranean ideal that it should be enjoyed, pace yourself

‘Party harder by staying cooler’ Antisocial consequences that seem to be accepted at present must be frowned upon by the group itself – ‘uncool’ to vomit, urinate, fight, etc. we’ve done it with drink drive

Develop a message for each age group – can’t say ‘ don’t drink’ common sense No nannying approach

Rules for parents to follow ( illustrate from our website) Parents accepting responsibilities

Alcohol will always be part of the fabric of our society, religion and culture

Create more of a café society approach – food, seating, talk (less noise can converse – slower pace)

Create good role models ( Tim Henman and Johnny Wilkinson)

Encourage dialogue and joined up thinking – we all have a common agenda to promote sensible drinking - Retail, On premise, Producer and Government

Are we wasting our time and money?’ Will lads ( and ladettes) just be lads, is it a rite of passage and young people grow out of these damaging patterns of drinking?

We believe that the climate is right for change.

A Poll by the Future Foundation presented at the ADmap conference in September revealed 68% of young people supported a crack down on anti-social behaviour

Half of young people have ended up in a dangerous situation through drinking according to Diageo’s research into over 2000 18- 24 year olds

- 1/3rd couldn’t find way home,

- 4-10 walked home alone after drunken argument,

- 5/10 had taken a lift home or got into an uncomfortable situation with a stranger.

These issues, according to the Alcohol Education Research Centre are of particular interest to young women.

Social Norming

1/3 of British teenagers drink regularly to get drunk - but that means that an overwhelming majority - in spite of the acres of media coverage and headlines - not to mention the noise and mess on the streets on a Friday and Saturday night - do not. 3.5m in that age group are not drinking to get drunk, who are still enjoying a drink, but are not getting drunk.

25% of drinking occasions in the UK are to get drunk’ ( means 75% are not).

All sectors of the industry and alcohol organisations are calling for the Government to fund hard hitting campaign on binge drinking to help change the cultural mind set. Young people cite the media and celebrities as the second most important influence on their attitudes after parents, and it was suggested that programming codes could be looked at as well as a more balanced approach from the media, whose obsession with ‘the binge drinking culture’ helps make it appear the norm, 90% of binge drinkers believe every young person is out ‘getting plastered’, when the reality is it’s 39% of 18 – 24 year olds.

If the Social norms approach ie getting through the messages that getting plastered is a minority behaviour can be communicated well, together with an improved drinking environment (at home, on premise and in the streets) coupled with effective enforcement, a change in cultural mood can surely be effected. It’s been done with drink driving, and over a period of a few years with more dialogue and joined up thinking patterns can be reversed……We are fortunate that all sectors have a common agenda to promote sensible drinking - Retail, On premise, Producer and Government. Obeying the existing laws on serving drunks and children; observing the spirit as well as the letter of the codes on advertising and marketing practices and providing information to consumers are all manageable goals. At present, best practice is patchy and not always well coordinated. We need a lot more joined-up action in the industry, just as we do with Government, and as the Forum demonstrated good foundations are being laid’

Remember the Three E’s

Education - Information in more imaginative forms and places

Messages per age group

Parents fundamental

Environment - home

- on premise

- on streets


And if we fail? ……….More Legislation

A final quote from Chris Bryant M.P.

Member of Parliament for the Rhondda,

Maerdy or Treherbert., both areas have a large problem at the moment which is alcohol-related. Large numbers of kids with nothing to do at the age of 10 – 11 – 12 are buying booze and drinking it, marauding around the town not just every Friday and Saturday night but every night of the week. That is probably the number one political issue in my constituency. And it’s certainly the number one thing that takes up police time and energy, So, many constituency MPs would know that alcohol is one of the most important issues facing modern society and facing us as politicians.

Presentation given by Helena Conibear, Director of AIM-Alcohol in Moderation, on the 27th October 2004

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All text and images © 2003 Alcohol In Moderation.