Janet Street-Porter: Who will teach teenagers not to binge drink?

Wednesday 17 December 2008 01:00

Last night a radio documentary highlighted the increasing number of children who get regularly drunk. Apart from the social disorder that results, increasing medical evidence shows they are damaging their livers, brains, and teeth.

Research shows that 15- and 16- year-olds drink double the amount each week that their parents did 20 years ago – a worrying statistic. Among 11- to 13-year-olds the story is the same. The number of units they consume on average per week has doubled in five years to 12 units. In one new town in Scotland, 150 under-age drinkers – mostly just 14 years old – have been rounded up by the local police in the last 18 months. Their parents are asked to come and collect them and are offered support to try and stop it happening again. Only one in four gives up drink for good.

In the last Budget the government offered more money for schemes like this, but the various ideas for combating excessive drinking among adults (from bulk mass purchasing via cut-price offers at supermarkets to labelling units more clearly) seemed to shy away from actually banning alcohol for everyone under 21, like many American states and some European countries.

It's not just a class thing. Kids at private schools are as likely to get drunk as those from a comprehensive. Quite simply, there is no stigma attached to drinking till you puke if you're under 18. Unlike California, where you're regarded as a potential alcoholic if you drink at lunchtime or have more than half a bottle of wine at dinner, the Brits have tolerated excessive drinking as part of growing up. But if current trends continue, more young people will grow up damaged by booze than ever.

Some people cite celebrity culture and lack of high-profile role models, but I don't agree. There are dozens of top footballers and sportsmen and women who don't drink at all, as well as plenty of pop stars and comedians. Some even achieve this without ever going to rehab. It's a life choice because they want to succeed.

In fact, the number of famous people who roll around pissed is far smaller than celebrity magazines would have you believe. Watching Cheryl Cole on The X Factor shows how much a young woman can change. This is the same person who was found guilty of drunkenly attacking another woman and causing her actual bodily harm in a nightclub toilet just five years ago.

Hottest television comedy star of the moment James Corden of Gavin and Stacey tells interviewers he doesn't drink much, generally a couple of beers, because he gets pissed too quickly. He even apologised for being "over-confident" after several rowdy public appearances earlier this year after he won a string of awards.

David Walliams and Matt Lucas of Little Britain drink very little, if at all. These people are hugely influential, so why aren't more teenagers copying them? I've never seen a single celebrity drink an alcopop, for example and yet night after night teenagers imbibe them till they puke.

The government still doesn't tax alcopops as heavily as other countries, for example Germany and Australia, where they are regarded as unsuitable for the young. Could it be the heavy-duty lobbying of the distillers that manages to reach the parts of Mr Darling other manufacturers cannot?

To meet the challenge of tacking teenage drinking, we need to harness our top comedic and musical talent, not just rely on the heavy hand of the law. Put simply, drinking needs to become naff.

You can argue about the film, but Kate is great

Kate Winslet is not everyone's cup of tea, but she deserves a Golden Globe nomination for her extraordinary work in Stephen Daldry's new film The Reader. The story of a former concentration camp guard who has an affair with a 15-year-old Jewish schoolboy in 1950s Germany had a mixed reception on its recent release in the US. Some prudes found the nude scenes hard to stomach. I can't think why. They are tasteful and truthful.

One influential critic complained that the film – based on the best-selling book by Bernhard Schlink, with a screenplay by David Hare – presented a dishonest version of Nazi atrocities. Having seen the film, I disagree. It's not about the factual veracity of particular events, but a reflection on guilt and the result of the refusal to confront it.

Winslet takes your breath away with an unglamorous portrayal of a flawed woman – to the point where you are shocked to find that you feel sympathy for her, no matter how shocking her past. With hands red and raw from scrubbing, greying hair filthy and matted, and her clothing shapeless, Winslet manages to convey a huge range of emotions and yet say very little. She's come a long way since the candyfloss of Titanic.

A statue's not how to remember Ernie

Next March marks a decade since the death of much-loved comedian Ernie Wise. A bronze statue of his showbiz partner Eric in trademark pose adorns the seafront in Morecambe, and now Ernie is to be immortalised in stone in the Yorkshire town of Morley, near where he grew up. A local artist has been commissioned, and when fund-raising efforts faltered, Eric's widow kindly coughed up the £8,000 fee.

I don't want to be churlish, but there are far too many pieces of second-rate sculpture being erected in public spaces all over Britain, from the completely repulsive couple desecrating the gorgeous concourse of St Pancras to the motley crew of animals in memory of the war dead amidst the traffic of Park Lane. Even Nelson Mandela's likeness by the late Ian Walters in Parliament Square is third-rate.

Eric and Ernie could have been commemorated in so many more appropriate ways, by naming a theatre or a building. But not a statue, especially of each of them and not as a pair!

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