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This is very interesting. It’s easy to complain about moral standards collapsing and young people becoming more reckless and hedonistic. But is it true? Not according to Department of Health statistics.

drinks by foilman

Take this one factoid: “the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011″. Early teens, in other words, are drinking far less than they did ten years ago.

Here is the article from Tracy McVeigh and Gemma O’Neill:

Young Britons, widely portrayed as binge-drinking hedonists, are turning into the new puritans, according to official figures and reports from student bars across the country.

Statistics showing a continuing decline in alcohol intake, especially among students, suggest they are increasingly rejecting the drinking and drug-taking culture of their parents’ generation and reversing the excesses of the late 1990s, said Professor Fiona Measham, a criminologist at Durham University, who has been studying drinking patterns for more than two decades.

Measham attacked health professionals for being unwilling to recognise the shifting patterns of behaviour, and for persisting with “shock tactics” designed to scare young people.

Department of Health statistics show a fall since 2001 in the numbers of under-16s in England who are drinking. The latest DoH report, Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England, reveals that the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who drank alcohol in the week before they were polled fell from 26% in 2001 to 12% in 2011.

There has been a drop in the proportion of this age group who think drinking is acceptable for someone of their age. In 2010, 55% had never tasted alcohol (39% in 2001), while 32% thought it was acceptable for someone of their age to drink once a week, compared with 46% in 2003. Similarly, 11% of pupils thought that it was OK for someone of their age to get drunk once a week, compared with 20% who thought that in 2003.

Levels of binge-drinking among young people have also fallen sharply. In 2010, only 17% of 16-24-year-old women drank more than six units on their heaviest day of drinking, compared with 27% in 2005, and 24% of young men drank more than eight units, compared with 32% in 2005.

Measham puts this in plain language, without the raw statistics:

The trends are clear. From about 2002 onwards, the tide turned. I’ve seen it in my students and I’ve seen it when I do my research in pubs and clubs. Something is changing, a cultural shift, there is no longer the desire to go out and get completely obliterated. It’s true of drugs also – use peaked in 2002 and there has been a slow decline.

Each generation wants to be different from the one before. The 1990s saw the cafe bars and an end to pubs being male-dominated. The drinks industry targeted women who were caught up in the glamour of Sex and the City-style cosmopolitan drinking, and of ‘me time’ and drinking with the girls and there was a complete revolution in consumption patterns. But for this generation that’s all a bit passé and they are more responsible. Increasingly, it’s the older generation setting a bad example and teenagers are quite disparaging of that.

One of the trends I’m seeing is students spending more on one occasion, rather than going out all the time. When I’m out doing research in clubs, young people will be paying large amounts to get in, but you don’t see huge queues at the bar. Another factor is that the worst excesses of the drinks industry have been curtailed by legislation – the free drinks and happy hours and irresponsible promotion of drinking.

It’s partly to do with ID schemes, debt, and unemployment. But it’s also simply that students have discovered more interesting things to do than drink themselves silly. At Leeds University, Antony Haddley, union affairs officer, said:

Interestingly, although night-time drinking may be less popular, we have seen a significant interest in membership to our clubs and societies, so students participating in a massive range of activities with their friends from skydiving to equestrianism and everything in between. So students are not suddenly turning into recluses who don’t go out; they are still having a good time, without alcohol.

And, of course, it’s the effect of social media…

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How much do you drink? Per day? Per week? I don’t mean cappuccinos and milkshakes. I mean units of alcohol.

I’m not assuming you are middle-class, but middle-class drinking is the focus of Robert Crampton’s article about the increasing acceptance of moderate-to-heavy alcohol consumption as part of an ordinary British lifestyle. [The Times Magazine, 12 Dec 2010; subscription only]

Over the last few years, alcohol consumption has actually fallen slightly, but not for everyone:

Among the middle-aged and older, and the more affluent, it has continued to rise. And because measuring consumption in the home is harder, and middle-class people tend to drink in their own and each other’s homes, the rise is likely to be higher than recorded.

Anecdotally, certainly, the evidence is clear. Most of my friends drink pretty much every day; the norm is none or one dry day each week. They sink maybe two or three beers or a half a bottle of wine, plus maybe a Scotch or a gin each night, sometimes more, in the week; then more, sometimes a lot more, at weekends. And then you’ve got holidays, special occasions, obviously the Christmas party season, already well under way.

We’ve come a long way from when we were kids in the Seventies and the booze stayed in the sideboard, a luxury that came out with the best crockery two or three times a year. To be middle class in Britain now is to drink, often rather a lot.

What’s the effect of all this drinking?

You get fat: I put on half a stone just in August. You sleep badly, either not enough or far too much. After a big, marquee night, a 20-unit extravaganza, you can lose a whole day to a hangover. Even at 11am, your wife is shushing the children because daddy’s not feeling well.

You make bad decisions. You get grumpy. You slur. You fall off your bike late at night. You have conversations with strangers you then can’t remember – the conversation or the stranger. Some people take advantage of your drunken generosity. You send e-mails and texts you probably shouldn’t send. And it costs you, what? Depending on where and what you’re drinking, 50 quid a week? Eighty quid? One hundred quid?

Why do people drink more? Everyone will have their own personal story, but Crampton thinks the bigger cultural changes have had a significant influence.

I grew up thinking heavy drinking was like gambling, something some idle rich people did and some deluded poor people did, not something those of us in the middle did. Or if we did do it, we felt bad about it. I think that was the way of it for most middle-class people my age, irrespective of religion or politics.

My parents had grown up in a mid-20th-century Britain constrained by war, rationing, lack of money and the residual influence of church or chapel. In mid-century, the country drank less than one third of what it had drunk in 1900, and just over one third of what it would drink in 2000. But even as I imbibed the idea that regular, let alone heavy drinking was at best strange, at worst sinful, the reality on the ground was shifting. By the time I turned 16 in 1980, the country was drinking twice as much as it had when my dad had turned 18 in 1950. And for the first time, a significant measure – about 15 per cent – in the national cocktail was wine, the middle-class tipple.

In the 30 years between my 16th birthday in 1980 and my 46th this August (three champagnes, two white wines, two margaritas, one red wine, one pint of Guinness) we have got richer and booze has got cheaper. Any religious restriction on drinking has all but evaporated. Foreign travel – and thus access both to even cheaper booze and an agreeable, vinocentric culture – is routine. Working hours are more flexible. Food is about 100 times better: there is far more incentive to combine a bottle of wine with what we eat in 2010 than with what we ate in 1980. The middle class has all but abandoned one vice, smoking, and adopted another, alcohol, in partial replacement.

I think something else has changed in Britain in those years, too, something less tangible. The middle class – even the strait-laced section I hail from – has learnt to value sensual pleasure in a way that would have seemed almost immoral to many even 30 years ago. And what more easily available sensual pleasure is there than drink?

Thirty years ago, at some level, we thought drinking, not just heavy drinking, was wrong. We don’t think that way any more. But maybe we should. Not all the time, four or five days out of seven would do the trick.

Crampton is not a puritan – that’s what makes his article so interesting. He just wishes we could find some balance and moderation. He wants us to recognise that there is a downside to our increasing dependence on alcohol. And he wants us to be more honest about the desires and needs that drive us to drink in the first place, and to ask whether we could meet them in other ways that would be equally fulfilling.

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Alcohol consumption has fallen again – the figures for 2009 are just out. It’s part of a long term trend: we Brits consume 13% less than we did in 2004.

This prompts Mary Kenny to reflect on her own unhappy experiences with drink (now twenty years in the past), and to wonder why anti-drinking campaigns prefer to stress the dangers of alcohol rather than the joys of sobriety.

Many of the campaigns against alcohol focus on the damage that it can do – that it harms your liver, can be a factor in throat and bladder cancers, and wrecks your personal and professional life. All this is true, but it’s emphasising the negative: what about stressing the joy of sobriety?

I once thought that life couldn’t be fully experienced without alcohol: but the truth is the opposite – life can be more fully experienced without alcohol. Drunkenness deadens experience: it renders delight oblivious and pleasure dull. Although I get anguished flashbacks from my drinking years, I have also forgotten huge tranches of my life. Regrets are pointless, but it is sad that I lost so much of the prime of my life in that haze of alcoholic amnesia.

And then, sobriety turned out to be the true champagne – bringing everything into focus in clear colour and full recall. One of the strangest things that happened to me after I started getting sober was that I had this intense sensation of colour all around me. The colours of life became so heightened.

We seem to be so nagged at and scolded about so many health and safety issues that I am not sure if gloomy warnings about the health dangers of alcohol are all that effective. Two things clearly help: increase the price of dirt-cheap supermarket alcohol, and emphasise the pleasures of sobriety.

Justin Webb wrote recently about an experience he had in America – which appalled him – when he went to a smart Washington party, only to find that the “punch” being served was cherryade. I thought, “Bravo for the hosts”. American culture, for all its faults, does not have this general idea that you have to be plastered to have fun. Honestly – you can have a great time on cherryade. Well, preferably, elderflower spritzer.

Searching for a birthday card, recently, for a young relation who was turning 21, I was hard put to find any greetings card aimed at young men which didn’t emphasise the glory of getting pissed. But getting pissed isn’t glorious: it’s shaming. It is life, fully savoured, fully aware, that is the glorious intoxicant.

There is a more general question here. Why is it that we often want to scare people away from what is harmful rather than attracting them to what is good?

PS – I’m not against alcohol! In moderation…

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