Mary Ann Sieghart: No wonder they've got a drink problem

If we had invented a system to encourage young people to drink too much, it would look like the system we have created now
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The Independent Online

Why do younger people binge drink more than their parents? It's not that their lives are so miserable that they have to obliterate their feelings. And it's not just their youth – their parents' generation didn't get routinely plastered at that age. No, it's much more the fault of stricter licensing laws, the demise of the pub and the relative cheapness of alcohol in shops.

When we were teenagers, we started going to the pub from the age of about 14. We had to pretend to be 18, but most landlords didn't ask and the rest gave us a wink but served us anyway. The pub was an institution, a social hub. You wanted to be accepted by the regulars, so you behaved the way they did.

And how did they behave? Well, they sat around tables or at the bar and chatted. From time to time, one person would buy a whole round, and the evening would gradually get merrier. A few might be drunk by the end of the night, but rarely throwing-up drunk, falling-down drunk or shouting-in-the-street drunk.

And because we were under 18, we knew we had to remain inconspicuous. The landlord would tolerate our presence as long as we didn't embarrass ourselves or him. We didn't dare get smashed or he wouldn't allow us back. And because we tended to meet the same group of friends in the same pub, being banned was not a good move.

The other thing about a pub was that it was mixed-age. The older regulars wouldn't exactly boss you about; they were more likely to take the mickey. But you respected them and didn't want them to think you were a complete fool. The aim was to be able to hold your drink. It would have been humiliating to get legless in front of them.

All these things have now changed. In many pubs, landlords are so afraid of losing their licence that they no longer allow parents to take their children in with them, so the children don't grow up learning how to drink, chat and socialise in a civilised fashion. Then, when the children are teenagers, they can't drink alcohol in a pub until they're 18 – or until they look 18 and get a convincing enough fake ID. Even if they have the ID, they can't go unless all their friends have one too.

So how do they drink? They buy vodka from the off-licence or supermarket and bring it home. Only one member of the group needs to be old enough to buy it, or one member's big brother or sister. Then, because they're young and have no role models or constraints, they get completely pissed. They drink to get drunk.

Of course, we all got horribly drunk, from time to time, in our teens. But usually only at an occasion – a party, say – when the drink was free and it went on all night. We didn't do it routinely, several times a week, whenever we got together. Most of the time we drank together, we indulged in social drinking rather than binge drinking.

The price differential these days also predisposes younger people to drink too much. It's so much more expensive to drink in a pub than to drink at home. So even when teenagers reach 18, they're less likely to start going to their local. Instead, they can buy a 70cl bottle of own-brand basic vodka at a supermarket for just over £8. That's 28 pub measures, while a single vodka-and-tonic in a pub costs more than £3. Do the maths – young people do.

Because drink is so expensive in pubs and bars, students say that the incentive is to drink as much as possible at home before you go out. That means you force yourself to get drunk so that the feeling will last for the rest of the evening without the need to top up too much. One of the arguments for liberalising the licensing laws was that some people felt they had to drink all they could before the pubs shut at 11pm. Now younger people are drinking all they can at the start of the evening, which is surely worse.

If you're in a pub, there's also less pressure to drink quickly. You can't top yourself up from the communal bottle – you have to wait until others have finished and it's time for the next round. If you're all drinking together at home, there's almost a race to the finish. You want to get your money's worth, because you've split the cost of the bottle. You might even want to get more than your share, so you keep glugging it back. And if you've all chipped in to buy the bottle, you might as well finish it – or who's going to keep the dregs? Between four of you, that means seven pub measures each before you leave the house.

If you do then go out, it's more tempting these days to go to a bar full of other young people than to a pub. At the bar, the drinks will be doubles and the music will be loud. You won't be able to talk to your friends; all you can really do is drink. The chances are you'll be standing up and knocking it back, rather than sitting round a table, chatting, and nursing your glass.

What's more, the peer pressure at a bar full of other young people is to drink until you're drunk. There are no boring middle-aged customers looking on disapprovingly. There is no landlord either; just a crew of young bartenders who have an incentive to serve you as much alcohol as possible. Only if you get into a drunken fight will anyone throw you out.

If we had invented a system that encouraged young people to drink too much, it would look like this. Strong spirits would be ridiculously cheap to take home. Bars and clubs would be designed to maximize the amount people drank. And young people would be deterred from entering the one institution that taught them how to drink well rather than badly.

Pubs desperately need a boost. They are closing at a rate of nearly 30 a week. You can blame the smoking ban. You can blame a clampdown on drink-driving. But it can't help that alcohol has become so much cheaper to buy from shops, and – as a result – that young people aren't frequenting pubs.

For centuries, the pub, tavern or inn has been the drinking place of choice for Britons. Even the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, expressed his envy of them last week. They are wonderful institutions – at their best, they are convivial, friendly, sociable and unifying. They bring people together of all ages and classes. They introduce neighbours to each other and foster a sense of community.

The Government is looking at ways to help local people buy their pub if it's in danger of closing down. But perhaps ministers should also look at raising excise duty on off-sales and cutting it for drink bought in pubs. For anything that encourages a culture of happy social drinking rather than hideous binge drinking would be good for society, good for our young people's livers and good for our town centres. Let's hope it's not too late.



m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/MASieghart

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