A government ‘action plan’ won’t stop teens boozing

The problem with teenage drinking is not their livers, but their lives: they’re sticking two blurred fingers up at today’s stifling adult culture.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Onwards and upwards from junk food and knife crime – this week, it’s alcohol that is sending teenagers to hell in a hand-cart. In another of its hydra-headed social policy initiatives, the UK government has this week launched a ‘Youth Alcohol Action Plan’ (1), under the auspices of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the Home Office, and the Department of Health.

The Youth Alcohol Action Plan comprises targets from the unworkable (stopping young people drinking in public places) to the fanciful (implementing a ‘culture change about drinking’) to the downright authoritarian (slapping Parenting Orders on parents of persistent teenage drunkards).

Like a public-information puppet show, the press release for the Youth Alcohol Action Plan wheels on the various heads-of-department to play the roles of Concerned Dad Cop, Bad Cop, and Objective Voice of Medical Authority. So Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, justifies greater intervention into home life by telling us that ‘crucially, parents tell us they want better, clearer information as they bring up their children’ (2).

Home secretary Jacqui Smith admonishes: ‘Underage drinking erodes the safety and wellbeing of communities as well as damaging young people’s health. It’s not right and I am determined to put a stop to it.’ And health secretary Alan Johnson, with the chief medical officer as his glamorous assistant, simply wants to ‘ensure that the young people of today do not become patients of tomorrow’ (3).

Health, crime and bad parenting: the alcohol strategy pushes all of the government’s current favourite buttons, and it is tempting to think that this is the only reason why this policy has been launched. For it is difficult to take seriously the idea that there is something new about teenagers drinking to get drunk – what adolescent has ever treated fine wine as an aesthetic pleasure, rather than a quick route to sex and sociability?

Meanwhile, the so-familiar refrain that teenage drinking is ultimately the parents’ fault, requiring yet more ‘advice’, ‘information’, and penalties to those of us who fail to calculate low-risk drinking levels accurately to the unit, is simplistic and insulting.

The harder questions

But the real problem with the government’s Youth Alcohol Action Plan is not that it proposes the wrong solutions, so much as that it fails to ask the right questions. Why, at this point in history, does teenage drinking disturb us so much? Not because teenagers are drinking themselves to an early death, but because of what teenage drinking seems to say about their lives. And while the government, too, seems concerned about this – hence the references to ‘culture change’ – it shies away from this very discussion, focusing instead on the usual suspects of bad health and bad behaviour.

Writing in The Times (London) in May, columnist Melanie McDonagh expressed her doubts that teenage drinking could be curbed by supermarkets raising their prices. ‘The truth is that there are graver reasons than price for why young people are drinking to nihilistic excess’, she wrote. ‘It may be a product of social deprivation, it may be that drink is a stimulant for lives that lack much love or meaning. It may, in short, be a spiritual problem. That’s harder to fix than the headline-grabbing option of raising the price of a pint.’ (4)

This, I think, is the right point – though not necessarily the right way to make it. The explanation of teenage drinking as a direct consequence of poverty and misery – or as McDonagh’s Sunday Times colleague India Knight puts it, ‘largely an underclass problem’ (5) – is as much a pat explanation favoured by liberal commentators as is the government’s emphasis on irresponsible parenting.

Nonetheless, it is true that today’s teenage drinking habits reflect deeper cultural tensions, and that these are to do more with adult society than with the kids. Here are some suggestions for areas that it would be interesting to research.

Extended adolescence and bedroom culture

It seems pretty clear to me that teenagers drink because they are bored. Nothing new there – except that today’s breed of young person is increasingly deprived both of freedom in their leisure time, and the responsibility of work. Now young people are expected to stay in education until they are at least 19, and it is hoped that half of them will go on to a university education that is neither demanding nor fulfilling, exactly what incentive is there to avoid a hangover and be able to get out of bed in the morning?

Frankly, if all young people have to look forward to is a period of extended adolescence, where you go to university just because you should and come home at the end of it to live with your parents, no wonder they seek some way out of their mundane existence through the chemical effects of alcohol. An excess of time and disposable income does create a vacuum for adolescent energies. This, it seems to me, is a problem in itself, not just because it leads to kids hanging out in parks or bedrooms drinking too much booze. But tackling the boringness of extended teenage life is a rather harder policy goal than simply planning to take their lager away: particularly when this boringness is presented by policymakers as the ideal way for young people to live.

The government has made much of the problem of children consuming too much alcohol at home and the extent to which this represents an abdication of parental responsibility. But in a rapidly growing bedroom culture, brought about by ‘good’ parents fearing too much for their children’s safety to let them loose in town, is it so surprising that parents might choose the lesser of two evils: in other words, ‘if they are going to get drunk, at least let them do it under our roof’? Given that under-18s are barred from pubs and will now be penalised for drinking in any public places, parents are going to find themselves pushed further in the direction of tacitly encouraging teenagers to have their wild nights at home.

Of course, you might say, parents should be better at holding the line – and this may well be true. Unfortunately, parents’ confidence in holding any line has been whittled away by decades of relentless pressure to indulge one’s child – to be their best buddy and let them have their fun.

Unlike the government, parents don’t kid themselves that it is possible to control directly every aspect of a teenager’s behaviour, from whether they play truant from school to whether they smuggle out a few cans of lager from the fridge. But what control they do have – to set a moral standard, to expect decent behaviour – has been weakened by an officially-sponsored emphasis on putting your child’s happiness and self-esteem first. A culture than treats adults as inept, boring and past their youthful prime makes it hard for parents to inspire in their children a sense of why it’s good to behave like a grown-up rather than a callow youth, and accept the standards that we impose.

Anti-social culture

The fact that drunken teenagers don’t know how to behave in public may have a lot to do with the transformation of drinking, in the cultural mindset, from a sociable activity to a health-harming pathology. Where once a drink was something for adults to enjoy with friends, family or colleagues at the end of a hard day’s work, now we are encouraged to see ‘drinking’ as something we do because we are a nation of borderline alcoholics engaged in the reckless abuse of our livers.

Is it any surprise that teenagers pick up on this and, as with any ‘bad’ behaviour (sex, smoking, drugs), take it to extremes? As the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues: ‘It is chiefly rebellion that makes children drink, and unfamiliarity that makes them drunk’; and ‘teenage binge-drinkers are not created by households in which they are allowed a taste of wine or beer every now and then’ (4).

For young people, learning to drink alcohol was once part of their initiation into adult society. The rebellious aspect of it represented their desire to grow up ‘too quickly’, and learning to hold one’s drink was an important marker of maturity. But in a society that treats drinking alcohol as a shameful, solitary activity, and when the cult of youth makes growing up seem both a distant and unappealing prospect, teenage drinking – drinking to get drunk – becomes a brash statement of being outside of adult society.

Those teenage binge-drinkers around whom the government’s ‘Action Plan’ is focused – lads smashing bottles on pavements, girls puking up in gutters – are young people putting two blurred fingers up at the adult world. Giving these youngsters official lectures about their health and behaviour is more likely to increase their estrangement than anything else. What is needed is a positive sense of adult sociability and public space – but the bans and regulations preferred by policymakers push this goal even further away.

Calls for speculation

It may be the case that, in fact, there is nothing about our youth-centred, risk-averse culture that moulds teenage drinking habits. That’s why some research would be useful. However, it is worth pointing out that compared to the government’s confident assertion that teenage drinking has a terrible impact upon health, my cultural speculations seem rather better grounded.

Despite scary headlines about the dangers of liver cirrhosis and alcohol poisoning, the health consequences of teenage drinking are not really known. That is why the Youth Action Plan, when proposing that parents will be given clearer guidelines on what constitutes a safe amount, admits that these guidelines do not yet exist: so the chief medical officer ‘will be working with an expert panel, as well as with parents and children, to develop clear information for children, and their parents, about the effects of alcohol’.

Common sense tells us that youngsters getting drunk every night are doing themselves no health favours – but medicine is based on science, not common sense. And there is something rather disturbing about a government policy setting out to provide a scientific rationale for itself in this way.

Presumably, the chief medical officer’s expert panel is not going to report that current levels of teenage drinking are absolutely fine. Nor is it going to tell us that the problem of teenage drinking might be most effectively solved by focusing on something other than teenage drinking.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and editor of the new website Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Read on: Jennie Bristow’s Guide to Subversive Parenting.

(1) Youth Alcohol Action Plan, Department for Children, Schools and Families, The Home Office, and the Department of Health, June 2003

(2) Press release: Young people and alcohol – A new approach launched in government action plan, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2 June 2008

(3) Press release: Young people and alcohol – A new approach launched in government action plan, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2 June 2008

(4) Price fixing won’t fix the problem, The Times (London), 23 May 2008

(5) A desperate new generation driven to drink, The Sunday Times, 25 May 2008

(6) Leave them kids alone, Guardian, 4 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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