Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

'Start them young' - by Jeremy Beadles

Published:  18 January, 2007

On 16 October the Government will launch a Binge Drinking Campaign'. Its objective is to increase understanding of the consequences of irresponsible drinking; its aim is to contribute to positive long-term change in attitudes towards sensible drinking' and ultimately help drive behaviour change.

The campaign's primary focus is 16- to 24-year-old men and women binge drinkers', and it will seek to raise awareness and consideration of the consequences of irresponsible drinking, change drinking behaviour and highlight sources of help. A targeted media campaign will run in October-November 2006 and January-February 2007, supported by leaflets, website and a helpline.

This is the first alcohol awareness campaign for some time and the budget of 2 million is far more than the total spend on alcohol health campaigns in the past four years. However, it still feels short term and lacks the financial clout of road safety campaigns. Changing cultural behaviour takes a long time and requires concerted messaging through multiple media channels. This is something the new Drinkaware Trust should begin to take more of a lead on as it takes on its new form over the next few months.

There is one element that appears to be missing from the alcohol strategy - education. Education and regulation are always referred to as the key routes to changing behaviour, and we see them on a near daily basis in the headlines that spring from a proposed regulatory approach. These are just some of the suggestions from the media over the past few weeks:

increase tax on alcohol

reduce the drink-drive limit for under-25s

increase the legal purchase age for alcohol from 18 to 21

ban all alcohol advertising and sponsorship by alcohol companies.

In parts of the media the balance of the debate seems to be lost. There is no mention of the positive health and social benefits of consuming alcohol in moderation or of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in the UK do not abuse alcohol. Much of the coverage demonises both alcohol and the drinks industry, yet education by parents and/or schools is rarely discussed.

One report last week issued by the North West Regional Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy Group and supported by the Department of Health did focus on the role of parents, but it was subsumed by the more headline-grabbing report the next day calling for higher taxation, bans on advertising, etc. This research surveyed 10,000 schoolchildren in the North-West and some of the recommendations are worthy of further thought.

While being alcohol-free in teenage years is healthy, this research suggests that experiencing sensible drinking in parentally supervised settings may reduce alcohol-related risk behaviours in teenagers. Parents should therefore not be discouraged from occasional moderate drinking with their teenage children. Allowing youths to drink in such settings can introduce an early dialogue about alcohol between parents and children, resulting in youths experimenting in safer settings with positive adult role models.'

More research is needed on the effects of alcohol consumption within family settings and how moderate, family-based and food-based drinking patterns might be encouraged in the UK.'

In reality, this research recommends that the UK should take a look at our European neighbours in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal and learn from an approach to alcohol education that introduces children to alcohol in a controlled, supervised manner and educates them. It also strongly recommends the strict enforcement of underage sales to teenagers and proxy buying of alcohol. The trade would support this approach, which should be part of a long-term strategy, but enforcement without education has potential risks. Children see adults drinking, and as we all know, children are growing up faster and can see little logic in a cut-off age like 18. They copy adults to appear older and more mature, but with the added excitement of rebellion - the risk of getting caught. Making alcohol illicit makes it tempting.

Parents have a role to play but so surely does the education system. The national curriculum includes education on drugs, smoking and sex, but not alcohol. It must be time to introduce balanced education on alcohol in schools as part of any communication plan to 16- to 24-year-olds. If they are better educated, hopefully people will accept more individual responsibility about the way they behave when drinking. In many cultures being excessively drunk is not socially acceptable; if we want to change culture in the UK then the path needs to be a careful mix of regulation and education. There also needs to be a long-term strategy that the various arms of government and the trade can buy into, understand and support.

The alcohol industry fully accepts that it has a role to play, but it can't effect cultural change by itself. What is needed is a long-term plan built on education as well as responsible business practices.