Time at the bar

Lager-life has its limits for women - but it won't kill us.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Let’s face it, it’s Christmas. Cue headlines about the dangers of doing anything enjoyable that we associate with the festive season: eating, partying, shopping, and above all, drinking.

The latest alcohol-related panic was sparked by the 2001 Annual Report of the UK government’s chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, which was released on 10 December (1). One of the report’s eight chapters is on ‘Liver cirrhosis – starting to strike at younger ages’. The report points out that ‘large rises in death rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis have occurred in most age groups’, but that ‘the rise in deaths from cirrhosis amongst younger people is of particular concern’ because, among this age group, ‘binge drinking patterns appear to be common’ (2).

Attention has focused particularly upon women because, while men have behaved badly for a decade (‘the number of men drinking more than [the recommended] 21 units of alcohol a week has remained at around 27 percent over this time’), the proportion of women drinking more than the recommended 14 units of alcohol a week has risen from 10 percent in 1988 to 15 percent in 1998. This unladylike behaviour, according to some, is a result of the ‘ladette culture’ apparently typified by former Radio 1 dj Zoe Ball. (That the rapidly ageing Zoe now has a young baby is something certain commentators keep forgetting.)

But if there is an issue to do with young people and drinking, it’s not to do with their impending death. It’s about life, right here, right now. Yet again, the government and the scaremongers are hiding behind personal health issues to discuss their fears of a ‘social disease’.

Beneath all the health hype and hyperbole, what’s actually going on? There seems little doubt that death rates from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis are on the rise. But this does not mean that huge numbers of young people are dropping dead from liver disease – the majority of such deaths afflict people over the age of 55 (See Don’t Panic Button: Ladies’ nite). Donaldson’s report also concedes that ‘there are many different causes of cirrhosis’ – although ‘it is often due to excess alcohol consumption’. For example, ‘another cause which is increasingly important is chronic viral hepatitis, especially hepatitis C’. Later on, we find that hepatitis C ‘is believed to be present in some 250,000 people in England’ – which, one would imagine, would make a sizeable contribution to the 4000 deaths from cirrhosis and chronic liver disease that happened in 1999.

But the report does not dwell on this possibility. It is much more interested in alcohol.

A large section of the chapter on liver cirrhosis is dedicated to the fact that ‘people’s drinking habits have changed over the last 30 years’. Read on, and you find that it’s not that people have been drinking more and more over 30 years, but that ‘average consumption of pure alcohol per person aged over 15 years increased from around six litres per year in 1969 to around 9.5 litres per year in 1976, and since this time has remained relatively stable’. A 25-year societal habit would seem hard to break. Perhaps that’s why Donaldson focuses his concerns, not on the amount of alcohol consumption, but on ‘changing patterns of consumption’.

Hence the emphasis on yoof. For both young men and women, ‘there is evidence of substantial numbers drinking heavily and in a binge drinking pattern’. Survey data cited by Donaldson includes the fact that 37 percent of men aged 16 to 24 reported a maximum daily amount consumed over the previous week of more than eight units of alcohol, compared to 21 percent of men of all ages. As for the girls – 23 percent of women aged 16 to 24 reported a maximum daily amount consumed over the previous week of more than six units of alcohol, compared to eight percent of women of all ages.

At first sight, there seems something quite bizarre about Donaldson’s concern with these figures. What the chief medical officer is saying is that it’s not the amount that young people drink that bothers him, but the way that they drink it. According to official guidelines, the maximum amount that people are supposed to drink per week is pretty meagre: 21 units for men (equivalent to 10 and a half pints of beer, or 21 glasses of wine) and 14 units for women (seven pints of beer, or 14 glasses of wine). Now, according to Donaldson’s definition of ‘binge’ drinking, it is apparently more of a problem if you drink more than a third of your weekly ration in one go (four pints a night, say) than it is if you space it out over the week. Why?

Presumably, because that’s how you get drunk. And while the Chablis-sipping authorities today are often keen to stress that they are not prohibitionist, they are not anti-drink, they find it very difficult to stomach people getting drunk. The sanctimonious ‘Down your drink’ website, a six-week self-help programme developed by the NHS and funded by the Alcohol Education and Research Council designed to help people (not just young people) reduce their drinking, even supplies, in response to the question, ‘Will I have to give up drinking altogether?’, the reassurance that: ‘No, we do not believe alcohol is evil, we enjoy a drink as much as anyone else’. Yet the first question posed by the test to determine whether you are drinking more than is good for you is: ‘How often do you have eight or more (men)/six or more (women) drinks on once occasion?’ – one drink meaning half a pint of beer or one glass of wine or one single spirits (3).

This emphasis on ‘binge’ drinking is clearly not about health. It is about behaviour, and lifestyle. New Labour doesn’t mind drinking, provided it is done in a moderate, appropriate, ‘sensible’ fashion. And young people are the least likely to adopt that kind of behaviour.

It should hardly come as a surprise that 30-odd percent of 16- to 24-year-olds drink a bit more than four pints in a night. What’s more surprising is that two thirds claim to have drunk less than this. University students – long renowned for their ability to piss their grants/loans/parental contributions up the wall – would be more likely to consider the government’s rations of less than five pints per night far less ‘socially acceptable’ than getting wasted after lectures. You’re only young once, as they used to say – time enough to start behaving responsibly when you leave college and settle down.

Aha – but there’s the rub. The issue about young people and drinking is that people are young for so much longer now. When do we expect twentysomethings to settle down, and start behaving responsibly? The age at which people leave their parents’ home, start work, get married and have children is getting later and later. The change in young people’s drinking habits is not that students get smashed, but that they graduate into the same kind of drinking culture when they leave college. And here there is a bit of a problem – although not in the way that Donaldson sees it. The problem isn’t young people’s health, or their behaviour after a few pints. It’s a broader issue, to do with what this drinking culture indicates about the society they have grown up into.

‘Haven’t you got homes to go to?’ used to be a regular rallying-cry of pub landlords at chuck-out time. Try it among a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomething graduates and the answer would probably be ‘no’. Yes, they have flats – quite nice ones – but very little to entice them back there. Today’s increasingly child-free and singleton society breeds young professionals with lots of disposable income, because there is little to invest it in; with lots of leisure time, because there are no familial demands on your time; and more opportunities to drink, because you have few responsibilities. It’s an infantilised world where the pub is the playpen, and life after work is lived for the moment.

New Labour might not like the drinking culture – but in all kinds of ways, it has shown its approval of the Peter Pan trend towards more years in college, later marriage and later childrearing. The government wants half of young people at university – any university – which keeps them in a position of childlike dependence for longer. It has launched national campaigns against ‘teenage pregnancy’, which, by refusing to recognise that the vast majority of ‘teenage mothers’ are adults, imply that 19-year-old women are as unsuitable for motherhood as 13-year-old schoolgirls. It has no problem with raising a generation of childish young adults – it would just prefer that they spent their time outside the pub, and inside work, volunteering programmes and other socially inclusive, officially approved schemes.

The fact that we prefer the pub is a stark reminder of how little else society has to offer. Not that the political elite has any positive solutions up its sleeve – instead, Professor Donaldson wants the government to work with ‘the NHS, non-governmental organisations, the drinks industry and other stakeholders’ to ‘change attitudes to problem drinking’, to make it ‘socially less acceptable’ to drink more than four pints a night.

Yet if bar-life is better than Donaldson’s neo-puritanical alternative, that doesn’t mean it is something to celebrate. You wouldn’t want to romanticise the past, when young parents stayed home sober and broke and looked after the kids, and it was women’s isolation from work and social life that kept them away from pubs (if not the cooking sherry). But many twentysomethings soon realise that student culture is fine when you’re at college; carry on too long and it becomes banal. Going out is great; having nothing to go home to is not. If we’re honest, we know that lager-life has its limits – and we should really be doing something less boring instead.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Drink and drugs

(1) Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2001

(2) Liver cirrhosis – starting to strike at younger ages, Chapter 4 of the ‘Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2001’

(3) See the Down your drink website

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