Behind the headlines: alcohol, young people and university

13 May, 2016

Henry Ashworth, chief executive, Portman Group

After last week’s negative headlines about hospital admissions among the over 65s, this week the national media painted a gloomy picture of alcohol use among young people.

Rather than demonstrating that our 16 to 24-year-olds are leading the way when it comes to responsible drinking, the press drew on the findings from a Glasgow University study to suggest a link between higher education and higher alcohol consumption: "Young Brits more likely to drink heavily if they have been to UNIVERSITY" (Daily Express); "Did you go to university or start smoking in your teens? Then you're more likely to be a heavy drinker" (Daily Mail); "University students more likely to be heavy drinkers when they grow older" (Herald Scotland).

But, as is often the case, the reality is more complex and more positive than the media coverage suggests.

The study rightly points out the range of complex factors that influence drinking habits among young people, most notably socio-economic background. But neither the authors of the study, nor the media, highlight the "alcohol harm paradox" - that the poorest communities in the UK drink the least yet suffer disproportionately from alcohol-related harms. Forty-one per cent of the lowest earners drank alcohol in the last week, compared to 72% of highest earners (HSCIC) yet those from the lowest income deciles are 55% more likely to be admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related condition and 53% more likely to die from alcohol-related causes (Public Health England). This surprising relationship reflects the complex interactions between alcohol and other vulnerabilities to which those from lower socio-economic communities are more exposed.

The researchers from Glasgow also suggest that "freedom from parents" may explain the link between higher education and heavier drinking patterns. Again, there are complexities here that have not been fully considered. Official government figures show that underage drinking (11-15) has declined by 50% since 2003 – to the lowest level on record -  and that the number of children who think it is acceptable to drink has declined 22% since 2008 (HSCIC). It would be easy to assume that stricter parenting has played a role here, but among the minority of children who do access alcohol, a vast majority (75%) do so through friends and family (HSCIC). Clearly children are turning their backs on alcohol – a welcome trend - but the impact of parental influence, or freedom from it, is not so straightforward and needs more detailed exploration.

Notably, no recognition has been given to the fact that the positive trends among children are translating into a significant and sustained culture change among young adults, including those at university. Since 2005 the number of young adults (16-24) drinking frequently has declined by more than 60% (ONS) and binge-drinking among the same age group has fallen by a third in the same period (ONS). Indeed, 16 to 24-year-olds now account for the vast majority of teetotallers in the UK, with 25% saying they do not drink at all (ONS). Of those that do drink, they consume on average 12.8 units per week, compared with 13.5 units drunk by those aged 45-54 and 15.1 units drunk by those aged 55-64 (HSCIC). Reading this week’s headlines you could be forgiven for thinking that our young adults are the problem. The reality is that they are leading the way when it comes to our changing drinking culture and deserve recognition for that.

It is not clear why young people’s attitudes towards alcohol are changing so significantly, but research carried out by YouGov and the think-tank Demos has indicated that 16 to 24-year-olds don’t see alcohol as an important part of their social lives. It also suggested that education and robust ID schemes enforced by retailers, pubs and bars - such as Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 - are contributing to a reduction in underage drinking, but more research needs to be done in this area if we are to fully understand these positive trends.

We do know that a range of important work is going on in universities across the country. The National Union of Students, in partnership with Government, has piloted schemes to encourage responsible drinking, proactively tackling harmful consumption and creating a range of social environments where alcohol plays an ancillary role. From Liverpool to Brighton, from Swansea to London, universities are receiving Alcohol Impact accreditation for their progress in these areas. There is no doubt that fresher’s week has been a continuing challenge, but today many universities promote their own alcohol policies that encourage moderation and safety and provide support for those who need it. In response to this week’s headlines, Universities Scotland issued a statement highlighting the range of social and cultural events that make up university life, defending the reputation of higher education institutions. Had this been picked up more widely, it would have brought some much needed balance to the press coverage.

The suggestion that “tertiary education could be a pathway promoting heavier drinking” paints a simplistic picture of the influences on young people’s drinking, serving only to generate unnecessary anxiety about investing in an education at a modern British university. It does a disservice to both the institutions working hard to promote responsible consumption, and to our increasingly responsible young adults. Crucially, it misses the point that higher educational attainment and socio-economic status are directly correlated to a reduced risk of alcohol-related harms in later life.

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