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Confessions of a student binge drinker

Pathways to Problems, a report into young British people’s drinking and drug-taking habits, offers only a ‘pathway to paternalism’ as an alternative.

Robin Walsh

Topics Politics

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The Home Office’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recently published the report Pathways to Problems, an inquiry into young peoples’ ‘hazardous use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs’, which has received widespread media attention (1). But what do young people themselves think about the Home Office’s views on a good night out?

The report recommends lowering the drink-driving limit for younger drivers (a recommendation immediately dismissed by the government) and increasing the duty on alcohol; it also proposed further restrictions on smoking, including raising the legal age to 18. Advertising of alcohol should also be restricted, the report says, despite recognising that the link between advertising and consumption is ‘equivocal’ (2). The authors also examine the total failure of school-based anti-drugs education, and how the government might get its message across more effectively in universities and through the media.

What do young revellers out on a Monday night in Nottingham city centre make of the report and its recommendations? In the tradition of gonzo journalism, I went to find out.

After vodka and energy drinks at home, the first stop is Wetherspoons. It’s quieter than usual, lacking the huge numbers of students that fill the place during term time. I do find Mike and Tom, a couple of third-year engineering students. They both think the media and government’s fixation on binge drinkers is over the top, but disagree about why this obsession exists. Mike reckons its because ‘alcohol is a major cause of death – it has negative consequences for the NHS which the government wants to limit’. Tom thinks its because ‘people often find it intimidating to see large groups of drunken young people. And the anti-social behaviour that is caused can reflect badly on people’s perception of Britain.’ Why do young people drink in such large quantities? ‘It’s not just about getting plastered, its about having fun’, says Tom. Mike disagrees: ‘Nah, its all about getting plastered…it helps when you’re trying to pull!’

While talking, we hit twice the recommended daily amount of alcohol, and officially begin to binge. The ACMD report highlights the fact that 1.9 million 16- to 24-year-olds hit this magic total at least once a week. This statistic was quoted largely uncritically in the press, despite the fact that this only means drinking around three-and-a-half to four pints for men or a bit less than three pints for women. Call me an alcoholic, but four pints hardly ranks with drinking White Spirit on a park bench in my book. Tom is critical of such a rigid definition. ‘I can easily drink far more than my brother; that we should have the same guideline is a bit silly.’

We move on to the Cookie Club, a rather dingy place off Market Square playing an eclectic mix of indie and retro Nineties house. We drink more bottled beer and alcopops and meet Greg, an opinionated history student from Bingley. What does he make of the recommendations to increase regulation? ‘A bunch of gimps! Totally out of touch! The civil servants and ministers who write those kinds of reports drink however many bottles of wine a night. Just look at Charles Kennedy, or Winston Churchill. But when it’s young people drinking shooters, it’s seen as a terrible thing. There’s definitely a class element to this.’

Things are beginning to get a little blurry as we approach the end of the night. Greg heads off with a girl and the rest of us stagger to the kebab shop before heading home to bed, with a hangover to look forward to.

What is immediately noticeable in the Pathways to Problems report is the lack of clarity in separating the two groups that it deals with. The first set of statistics in the report is about 15-year-olds who drink, smoke and use cannabis. This is immediately followed by similar statistics for 16- to 24-year-olds. There is no clear recognition of the fact that the older group are (largely) adults, who ought to be old enough to look after themselves.

Looking at the report’s recommendations, the consequences of confusing the two age groups become clear. Imposing tighter driving rules restricts young adults rather than dealing with underage drinking – and increased alcohol duty impacts on all drinkers, whatever their age. The idea that adding an extra few pence on the price of a pint would stop anyone from drinking is laughable, too; if that were really the case, expensive London would be the driest city in the world. The report hides behind the unpleasant mental image we all have of the cider-addled teenager in order to advance an agenda of increasing restrictions on young adults enjoying themselves.

The report belatedly recognises that school drugs and drink education is essentially useless. The authors’ conclusion is to provide more ‘accurate [and] credible’ information on drug use; a move away from the more traditionally moralistic ‘drugs are bad’ agenda, to one oriented around harm limitation (3).

Let’s be clear: ACMD is not just intending to give kids information and let them make up their own minds. Instead, the authors discuss moving their anti-drink and drugs agenda ‘Beyond the School’ into the media and universities, ‘encouraging and enabling’ students not to drink and take drugs. They recommend this course of action because they believe it will be far more effective for their agenda (4).

There is also much talk of the health consequences of drugs. The move from morals to health reflects the inability of the authorities to obtain broad agreement around any set of social norms. Actively to come out against drinking and drug use as moral wrongs would simply be laughed at nowadays. The authors implicitly recognise this, so are forced to fall back on the negative health consequences of these activities. This new style of message is illustrated by the chummy, facts-based style of the ‘Talk to Frank’ adverts, a government initiative offering young people confidential information and advice on drugs.

However, this latest basis for government policy is bound to fail, too. The reality for most young people is that drink and drugs are pretty fun, with only the occasional hangover rather than the cirrhosis of the liver and instant death we are told to expect. The government’s warnings, however ‘credible for the kids’, will still hit this brick wall of real life.

Unlike government ministers and ‘health promotion experts’, young people realise that health outcomes aren’t the be all and end all of life. There is still such a thing as having fun. Unfortunately, the conflict between these two outlooks means that we can look forward to further acts of petty authoritarianism, of the kind suggested in Pathways to Problems, to restrict our behaviour.

The authors of Pathways to Problems admit that they cannot adequately explain ‘why drug [and alcohol] use has increased so dramatically among young people in the past 40 years’ (5). It is definitely true that alcohol, drugs and clubbing – ‘living for the weekend’ – have a more central role in many young peoples’ lives now. However, the ACDM’s fixation on how to stop these supposedly appalling activities prevents a serious analysis of today’s situation, where some young people seem to let loose in a drunken manner because there is little else of substance happening in their lives.

From the eighteenth-century ‘Gin Lane’ debate onwards, panics around drinking have been common currency. Historically, alcohol and drug use are often blamed for causing the social problems that they are in fact a response to. The Soviet government’s attack on alcoholism in the Eighties, for example, was an attempt to pin the blame for the moribund state of the nation on the demon drink. Likewise, America’s War on Drugs shifted the focus from the failure of the American dream in the urban ghettos to the jungles of Colombia.

Our contemporary panic about binge drinking and drugs reflects a number of things. As noted earlier, the disorientation of the elite, and their attempt to find some new bearings, is a driving factor in the problematisation of drinking. There is also a gulf of generational incomprehension. When adult society sees young people as feral creatures beyond their control, it becomes natural to find them intimidating and scary. As Greg suggested, there is an element of class contempt involved as well – Bacardi Breezer is seen as a problem, not Merlot.

The government and its advisers need to stop trying to solve their problems through interfering in our partying. What we young people really need is an end to lectures and increased limits on our behaviour. If we are treated like adults, we might just start acting like adults a little more.

Robin Walsh is a student at Nottingham University.

(1) Pathways to Problems, Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, 2006

(2) p49

(3) p82

(4) p83

(5) p22

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Topics Politics

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