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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 31 July 2014

The truth about under-age drinking

This time it's so blatant even the Daily Mail couldn't distort the truth: the number of school-age children drinking alcohol has fallen to the lowest level since records began. 

The decline has been long, steady and consistent. In recent years, when the figures have been released most media coverage has stated the percentage of school children who admit to having drunk alcohol - 39% according to the latest study - with headlines like "four in ten children boozing! Mass epidemic!" while deliberately avoiding telling you that this figure was, say, 61% in 2003 for example. The liars at Alcohol Concern would resort to using older data to artificially inflate the problem when more recent, freely available data showed the numbers were in sustained decline. The deliberate obfuscation around the issue even led to supposedly reputable newspapers writing headlines claiming that under age drinking was 'soaring' when they very data they were reporting on showed it was in fact falling, not rising.

Now the decline is so steep, and so sustained, that there's no getting away from it. Last week's headlines were unequivocal - under-age drinking is no longer cool:
  • 39% of pupils said they had drunk alcohol at least once. This continues the downward trend since 2003, when 61% of pupils had drunk alcohol, and is lower than at any time since 1988, when the survey first measured the prevalence of drinking in this age group.
  • 9% of pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This proportion has fallen from 25% in 2003.

Bouyed by this undoubted good news, the Portman Group undertook some research among parents of school-age children to learn if they were aware of the fact that their children are not drinking. 

Unsurprisingly given the media coverage the issue receives, 9 out of 10 parents had no idea about the 34% decrease in children who have drunk alcohol. The same proportion were similarly unaware of the 33% decrease in the number of kids who think it is OK to drink alcohol on a weekly basis.

I don't normally reprint infographics that are sent out as press releases, but I believe this one, summarising the Portman Group's research, is important and should be disseminated as widely as possible.


What the Portman Group are too polite/professional to suggest is that the national media, fuelled by neo-prohibitionist groups, are deliberately creating concern over an issue that is much smaller than we are being led to believe.

What's also fascinating is that when parents were informed of the truth, they were asked why they believe attitudes and behaviour around alcohol among children are changing. Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer is that they believe the trade is getting tougher on serving alcohol that might be intended for under-age consumption. In distant second place, with 25% versus 57%, was the suggestion that kids are too busy talking to each other on social media to go out and drink.

Of course, even now, the media can't quite bring themselves to credit the alcohol industry with responsible behaviour. Last week's headlines were all about Facebook and Twitter stopping kids from drinking, and the main reason - at least as far as parent's believe - was ignored. 

Admittedly the social media angle is a more interesting headline because it says something about social change. But I think it's a red herring. Think about it: where do kids use social media these days? In their bedrooms? Maybe. But also on the bus, in the park, on the street - everywhere they go, including the places where kids traditionally sneak booze. Social media is mobile, and its use doesn't preclude traditional under age drinking behaviour.

I'm not saying the trade can claim all the credit. I do believe there is a social change going on. If I had to guess, I'd say kids seeing their parents necking a stress-relieving bottle of wine or two when they get home from work every evening kind of takes the glamour off drinking. When I was a kid, boozing was something that happened in pubs and working men's clubs, places from which I was forbidden, that had a mystery and an allure. Now we're much more likely to drink at home, in front of our kids. Through their eyes, I doubt we look as cool as we think we do.

Either way, we can now look forward to the end of scare stories about kids drinking themselves to death, illustrated with picture of cask ale being served at the Great British Beer Festival. Right?

7 comments:

John Smith said...

They are all hopped up on goofballs instead.

Cooking Lager said...

Out of interest has anyone ever run any data to compare the UK with other European countries?

Phil said...

Cookie - there are definitely comparative figures for trans-European boozing; I don't know about young people's drinking specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if the data's out there somewhere.

One snippet I remember from when I was (briefly) studying this stuff is that the French 'healthy attitude' to booze only goes so far - they have less bingeing than us and less drunken ASB, but just as much drunk driving and more liver disease. The psychological effects of boozing seem to be genuinely culture-specific, but the physical effects are going to get you in the end.

Maltainen said...

There has been a similar trend in Finland with a decline in underage drinking since 1999. Numbers are not directly comparable as in Finland the survey was done on 16 year olds. I don't think that the chance in Finland can be attributed to stricter policies in shops and pubs. In Finland the alcohol trade has been under a very strict control for a long time. Perhaps the underage drinking habits are getting internationally more homogenous. After all, both Britain and Finland were 10 years ago "top countries" in underage drinking and in sharper contrast to many other European countries.

Mark Baird said...

The ESPAD report gives us the details on teenage drinking across Europe - here http://www.espad.org/en/Reports--Documents/ESPAD-Reports/

kingwood-kid said...

I think it is social media driven, but as an informant, rather than a diversion. If kids get together and drink, one of them will be dumb enough to tell the world and provide photographic evidence of their co-conspirators.

Johnnie Lustoza said...

These are great news. Let's look foward for more decline in the underage drinking rates.