This week has seen a load of noise about alcohol, and in particular ‘binge drinking’ and teenage drinking. As always, the complicated truth can’t be allowed to get in the way of soundbites and simplistic analysis.
First, there’s the “tipping point” that Jacqui Smith has been touting. ‘Where more 13 year olds have drunk alcohol than have not’. But what does this mean? For the Daily Mail (but I’ve lost the link!) this meant most 13 year-olds were getting drunk, which is not what the minister said. Most papers stuck to her wording (see this) but this sounds like it means over 50% have had a drink some time in their life, not in the last week, month or year. In fact, saying we have now reached this point is absurd. In 2006, a drinkaware survey found the average age of first drink (not just a sip) was 11, a 2003 survey in Northern Ireland found the average age for the first drink was 11. There’s a big difference between 50% of 13-year-olds getting drunk once a month and 50% having had a couple of drinks with their parents at Christmas.
This, we’ve heard, is justification for a crackdown on a) children drinking in public places, and b) parents buying their kids alcohol. This again is complicated, both with regard to the law and what happens in the real world. It isn’t illegal for kids to drink in public places, but it is illegal for under-18s to buy a drink, or to buy a drink for a child. However, it’s not illegal for a parent to buy a drink for an under-18, and it’s expressly allowed in pubs if you are eating and the child is 16/17. The law seems a bit confused here, but if the parent buys alcohol to send the kids out on the street with, then this may be illegal (I think it is… it’s illegal ‘for anyone to buy alcohol for someone under 18 to consume in a pub or a public place’). If the parent buys alcohol for the child to drink at home, then that’s OK, and if the child then takes it outside then that’s not illegal either! The police can confiscate if they think it’s going to be drunk outside (to avoid public nuisance) but not if the kids are on the way to someone’s house. Either way, no ‘crime’ has been committed.
Furthermore, research suggests that ” ‘Fewer’ teenagers drink regularly” because the crackdown on rogue shops is working, and that parents should be encouraged to give their children alcohol at home because that means less drinking on the street. Children that buy their own booze are far more likely to be binge drinking or street drinking. We should be encouraging a continental approach.
But even this, for me, is problematic. There’s an oft used trope in youth work and youth studies, that tells why the kids on the street and at youth clubs are the poorer kids. Whereas the richer kids have the resources to go to events (e.g. being driven to a sports centre or theatre let’s say) the poorer one’s don’t. Richer kids in big houses have their own rooms so they can invite friends round, and the most priviliged might have a spare room or a converted garage. Poorer kids might be sharing with their little brother or sister, and the smaller space means it’s harder to get out of the way of parents. They don’t have a big dining table so can’t invite friends over for dinner: everyone prefers to drink with friends to their parents. Because of this, richer kids can have their earlier experiments with alcohol at home in safety. Poorer one’s have no opportunities, except in public spaces. To be just, a crackdown on teenage problem drinking should be helping these children into more comfortable homes where there’s opportunity to socially drink with friends (and maybe parents too).