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Binge Drinking - A Very British Disease.

(June 2004)

beer tap

First, I think it will be useful to define what I, and probably you, define as 'binge drinking'. The government, in all its wisdom, recently defined binge drinking as an occasion when an individual drinks four pints (or the equivalent of) in one day. I am uncomfortable with this definition - as it paints me, my friends, my dad and even my granddad as compulsive, binge bingers - so, I will use a more realistic framework. Binge drinking will be an occasion when a man or women drinks the equivalent of eight pints (at least!), becomes loud, boisterous, sometimes abusive, before wobbling - sometimes stumbling - home with bag or coat missing. sound familiar?

In a recent speech, Tony Blair proclaimed binge drinking to be the new British disease. We do not know whether he was referring to our definition or that of his own government, but beyond our Tony's apparent confusion lays an important issue. The government, in reality, has been a bit slow on the uptake. It is roughly five years since the term 'binge drinking' was first coined, and three years since the World Health Organisation expressed its concern that 'binge drinking had become Britain's new alcoholic curse'. And whilst drink manufacturers, the trade, and advertisers have come in for some recent criticism on this issue, I can't help thinking that much of this is unfair. It is it too simplistic to put the blame solely at the commercial sector's door.

At the end of the day, supply means nothing without demand. Which begs the question, why do young Britons have such an insatiable appetite for alcohol? Yes they can often get it cheap, but why do they want to drink so much? In an attempt to even begin to understand this, we must explore far wider social and psychological perspectives.

'binge drinking had become Britain's new alcoholic curse'

British culture is, in essence, very much a drinking culture. Drinking is what we are synonymous with, ask most Europeans. The culture that young Britons export to foreign shores each year means our national identity, in the eyes of many of our European counterparts, is now entrenched in one of drunkenness, promiscuity, often loutishness. Regardless of whether we go to Pafkos, Paris or Prague, or what we're doing, high degrees of inebriation, or binge drinking, are par for the course. Our first thoughts are to get 'pissed', 'hammered', 'battered', 'blasted', and that's before we've reached the airport! Young Britons like drinking, and they like drinking a lot. The fact that they want to do it everywhere, and not just in the Blue Orchid in Croydon, illustrates how binge drinking is primarily driven by a specific mindset - a mindset that reflects the young British psyches' craving for intoxication.

beer glass

It is not that they don't like drinking on the continent. On the contrary, alcohol represents an intimate feature of, for example, French and Italian culture and cuisine, and plays a pivotal role in social activities. Additionally, in Northern Europe (the so called 'vodka line'!), high levels of alcohol are often consumed. What I am suggesting, however, is that the way in which young Britons consume alcohol, and how they act on it, tends to differ dramatically. The types of social issues closely attributed to binge drinking - promiscuous and unprotected sex, illness, vandalism, and violence (according to home office statistics 75 per cent of violent assaults are committed by people who have been drinking) - simply do not exist to the same levels in other parts of Europe.

english flag

Observing consumers in France, Italy, Spain or Belgium for example, one will often witness drinkers quite comfortably making a few beers (halves of course!) or glasses of wine last a full three hours. In contrast, British consumers can often appear uncomfortable without a drink in hand. Hence our obsession with 'rounds', an unfamiliar and bizarre concept for many on the continent, but one which facilitates a constant flow of alcohol with the minimum of effort. For many Europeans, the thought of drinking seven or eight pints in a three-hour period would not be an attractive one. In addition, our binge drinking need not be confined to the weekend. Whilst Thursday may have become the new Friday - Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are fast becoming the new Saturday!

Hectic working lives, the need for release, hedonistic tendencies, peer pressure, the increased affluence of youth, or simply boring existences, provide some conventional reasons as to why we binge drink. But for me it goes much deeper than that. Based on our research with this target audience, I believe our infatuation with drunkenness is driven by a number of factors:

'Dutch courage'

The first stems from a seemingly in built lack of self-confidence and belief. The young British psyche tends to suffer from a lack of assurance, from a need to put up barriers and build (often unconscious) walls of secrecy. The British are generally quite reserved, often reclusive, people. We can, at times, demonstrate peculiar signs of emotional ineptness, and be frustratingly insular. Obviously it's not always the case, but in other European countries young people generally seem more at peace with themselves, and give off the vibe that they don't need to get drunk to have a good time.

Drinking alcohol reduces inhibitions and lowers defences, increases confidence and releases the old 'Dutch courage'. It enables us to open up, and to do and say things we otherwise would not, it takes us over and unleashes the character so often repressed in normal mundane life. Perhaps drinking is so comparatively popular in Britain because it (temporarily) allows us to liberate these fundamental human characteristics, so naturally flourishing in other European cultures, yet seriously lacking from our own.

The second relates to an apparently decreasing sense of personal responsibility amongst young Britons. Whereas previously conventional paths such as marriage, the 'nuclear family', and the 'job for life' gave young people a long-term goal, something to aim for - and ultimately governed how they behaved - trends in modern life have altered behaviour dramatically.

Without wives, husbands, partners, kids and long term financial commitments, the only responsibility many young people have now is to number one! It's an accelerated culture with enjoyment as an end in itself. This often manifests itself as a 'don't care' attitude, where no thought is given to either themselves, others or future circumstances, just so long as they are having fun - cue excess drug consumption, unprotected sex, unsocial behaviour etc etc.

handr

The third is connected with the normalisation of excessive drinking. Everyday the communication consumed by young Britons portrays the impression that it is "cool" to get "off your face"- whether it's radio DJ's, members of bands portrayed in magazines or Big Brother contestants.

I am not suggesting that British culture simply acts to produce a nation of alcoholics, or that the social fabric of our society is eroding beyond repair. But it is undeniable that we have a far more intense relationship with alcohol than many of our close European neighbours and fundamental defects in the psychology of British youth, together with the dissolving of individual, and hence social, responsibility, must be held at least partly responsible for the binge drinking phenomenon.

Industry funded attempts to warn against drinking too much could have a role to play. The government, however, rather than scare mongering and finger pointing, should be seeking to devise and implement a plan that aims to tackle the problem of binge drinking head on. It needs to acknowledge, and then confront, these social and psychological deficiencies. As with the recent publicity surrounding obesity, there is a need to have (in the current jargon) joined up thinking on the issue that tackles it in a multi- dimensional manner. Only then can we really expect to see a change in attitude and mindset, and a reduction in binge drinking.

Binge drinking is very much a British disease and diseases need proper treatment.

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