Teenage booze ban: will it work?
by Sonia Sodha
It’s well known that British teenagers drink more frequently – and more – than their peers in other countries. Almost one in three 15-16 year olds say they have been drunk more than 20 times in their lifetime, and report binge-drinking more than three times in the last month.
Politicians have been scratching their heads about what to do about this. So far the approach has centred around tighter regulation of alcohol sales and advertising, and on more responsible pricing. The latest tool to tackle youth drinking was announced last week, when Sir Liam Donaldson, the government’s Chief Medical Officer, issued new guidelines for parents on young people’s drinking: a five-point plan for an alcohol-free childhood. They say parents should not give alcohol to children under the age of 15, and that drinking by 15-17 year olds should only happen under adult supervision.
These guidelines come in response to the rather obvious insight that teenagers’ attitudes to drink are to some extent influenced by their parents. So in homes with more permissive attitudes to regular binge drinking, young people’s drinking is more likely to reflect those attitudes. Some parents even facilitate binge drinking – for example by buying large amounts of alcohol for their children when going to parties.
But will these guidelines really get to the heart of the matter? They’re based on precisely the same strategy as previous efforts to reduce teen drinking: closing off young people’s access to alcohol. Yet it’s doubtful that limiting access will work by itself. There’ll always be some parents who allow it – and even if not, teenagers will find a way of getting their hands on it. Just take the example of illegal drugs: one in five 15 year olds claim to have smoked cannabis in the last week.
The government’s approach seems to ignore the fact that it is aimed at teenagers – in whose very nature it is to rebel, experiment and take risks in the process of growing up and discovering their own identity. Most parents don’t need to be told that alcohol is hazardous to their teenager’s health – one of the five guidelines. What many parents do say though is that they want more advice on how they can better support their children in managing transitions to adulthood and independence – including in helping to foster healthy attitudes to drinking. Guidance has to be more nuanced and sophisticated than simply stating a cut off age, particularly as banning something often only has the effect of giving it an added air of mystique and excitement for this age group. So to accompany efforts to limit acccess, we need to start by asking whether teenagers are being best equipped with the skills and capabilities they need to negotiate the various risks they will face as part of growing up. Wrapping them in cotton wool won’t work.
(In 2009 Demos will be undertaking a year-long research project focusing on the cultures and norms that underpin teenage binge drinking, as part of the Capabilities programme. For more information, please get in touch.)