Mal Fletcher
Youth Drinking Problem Reflects Badly On Us All

Nothing is more dangerous for the future of a society than having its young people grow old before their time.

Figures released today by the NHS show that alcohol-related liver disease is on the rise among teenagers and young adults.

The number of drinkers under the age of 30 who are admitted to British hospitals with liver problems, once found only in older adults, has risen by 50 per cent in ten years.

One medical expert in the field has claimed that while this statistic sounds grave enough, it is in fact a gross underestimate.

Whatever the exact numbers, they may tell us a lot more about ourselves and our culture generally than they do about our young people. We should deal with this as a societal problem rather than a merely generational one.

In this age of hyper-stress, financial crises, austerity drives – one in five Britons is reportedly affected by depression - alcohol is a social relaxant. It is the elixir many of us need to get us into the right space for socialising and unwinding.

We may spend less time in pubs these days, but drinking wine at home, for example, has become a much more widespread practice in this country over the past decade.

Like many of the good things in life, alcohol is a good servant but a ferocious master. It is best enjoyed when consumed with both a healthy respect for its chemical power and a high level of self-imposed discipline.

A couple of years ago, the NHS recommended a daily alcohol limit of two or three units for women (around two small glasses of wine) and three to four for men (or two pints of lager). Yet the government at the time was forced to admit that as many as ten million adults in England alone were regularly drinking above those limits.

So while we’re right to be concerned about how young people are misusing alcohol, their behaviour is in part a reflection of wider community attitudes. These attitudes have shifted so much that in many supermarkets now you can buy a can of lager for less than a can of Coke.

What kind of message does that send to the emerging generation?

Children and younger teenagers – and, apparently, more than a few twenty-somethings – haven’t yet developed an adult capacity to set boundaries for themselves. Still at the stage where much is in flux, physically and emotionally, they’re more likely than their elders to drink to excess, and to reach overload quickly.

Much of their behaviour when it comes to alcohol is learned from their peers, their heroes and, not least, their parents.

An Australian study some years back revealed that most young people have their first alcoholic drink at a family party or event, with their parents’ consent.

It may be better for a teenager to have his or her first drink in the relative safety of the home, but the problem is that drinking alcohol is all too often turned into a rite of passage. In many of the families represented in the Australian study, parents allowed or encouraged teens to drink as a mark of recognition that they were approaching adulthood.

I see no reason to believe that the situation is any different in the UK.

As long as we continue to see drinking as a sign of maturity, young people will be drawn to it – and given a false sense of security in its presence.

Of course, the problem may start much younger than the teenage years. On the whole, smaller children tend to learn more from our actions than from our instructions.

They read into our behaviour a reflection of our core values. They assume that our actions are always a consistent reflection of what we believe to be right. When they see inevitable inconsistencies between what we say and do they’re quick to point these out.

It’s not so much that they’re looking for signs of hypocrisy; they’re simply wired somehow to watch our actions more than listen to our words. Before they learn to fully understand language, they’re already learning to imitate actions. This offers a protection mechanism: they don’t need to comprehend everything we say in order to avoid every little danger around the house.

If children and young teens constantly see us using alcohol in an offhand way, they’ll take that as a sign that we think alcohol is harmless.  And they’ll trust our judgement on this.

For their sakes as well as our own, those of us who are parents and guardians need to show by our actions that we can enjoy alcohol without losing respect for its potential to wreak havoc.

Of course, parents and guardians no longer operate as the only shapers of their children’s values. If a recent Ofcom study is correct and children spend 2000 hours every year in front of screens, 1200 with family and 900 in school, the influence of digital media on their values is possibly as great as that of family and formal education put together.

So, the media have an important role to play here. Given the propensity of young people to align their behaviour with that of celebrity characters and fantasy storylines, producers must stop insisting that their storylines merely reflect cultural mores.

They must own up to the fact that they are reinforcing and shaping  values, especially among the young, for whom fantasy often seems more real than reality.

There is also the influence of peer pressure to consider. In some young social circles, not drinking, or drinking in moderation, is seen as a major faux pas.

Let’s not pretend, however, that peer pressure ceases to have influence when people reach the age of 18 or 20. We are all social creatures; our choices are at least in part shaped by the values of our cultural milieu. This fact has been borne out time and again in studies around the world.

The power of acculturation can lead us to do things we might not do if given the same choices in an isolated place. Whatever our age, when it comes to alcohol consumption we need to be conscious of the pressure to conform and place self-respect above popularity.

As much as our children – and for their sakes – we need also to rely less on alcohol for emotional relief.

As human beings, we often engage in behaviours that we know may damage our health simply because those behaviours offer emotional or psychological pay-offs in the short-term.

This is especially evident in tough times. The recent recession and the rapid rate of change in our society are just two factors leading to higher levels of distress in our community.

On all kinds of levels, we just can’t afford to let alcohol become our default means of dealing with that distress.

This is not a problem we can lay simply and squarely at the feet of politicians. Yet governments can and should do much more to help, on two fronts.

Firstly, they must invest more in educating people – young and old – about the dangers of excess drinking.  

A few years ago the government initiated very graphic advertising campaigns to make people aware of the dangers of smoking. They backed this up with anti-smoking drives in schools and workplaces and government-backed programmes for people who wanted to quit.

Those measures, combined with tighter regulation of sales and advertising led to a drop in the number of people taking up smoking for the first time. The eventual ban on smoking in public buildings was partly a by-product of this change.

The ban wouldn’t have been possible unless public attitudes had shifted to accept it.

We need a similarly proactive and consistent approach to promoting awareness of alcohol abuse. Yes, money is tight, but this would eventually cost society much less - in NHS costs and lost productivity alone – than continuing with the status quo.

Of course, public education schemes only work when they’re supported by fair and balanced laws. You need to have legislation in place for when education fails. It provides the ‘stick’ which can be applied when the carrot of education hasn’t worked.

In particular, governments must do more to regulate how and where alcohol is sold.

The NHS report points to the cheap price of alcohol as a major factor in the current problem with youth drinking. Alcohol is now 75 per cent cheaper in real terms that it was in 1980. This must change.

Yet we also need tighter regulation of the number and types of venue where alcohol can be sold. We need better rules governing sales in supermarkets, for example.

Otherwise, young adults who buy their booze in supermarkets today may get it from street vending machines tomorrow.

Treated well, alcohol is one of the pleasures of life. Failing to respect its chemical power, though, can lead to irreparable damage to various organs of the body, including the liver, the kidneys and the brain.

Liver disease alone has a long list of side-effects, ranging from extreme fatigue, painful joints, pain and bloating in the stomach, diarrhoea and memory loss.

Consistent alcohol abuse can lead to coma and death. And, of course, there’s the damage people often do to their families and communities when under the influence of excess alcohol.

For all sorts of reasons, we need to stop pretending that alcohol is a harmless drug requiring very little in the way of self-control – or, where our kids are concerned, parental involvement and discipline.

We need to see abuse as a societal problem, rather than a problem for isolated individuals or even a specific generation.

What the NHS figures indicate is not just a bored, over-hyped or spoilt young generation. They reveal a collective, societal attitude to alcohol that is a little too lax, a little too careless.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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