“Awareness raising” has become a common objective for health campaigns concerned about the dangers of alcohol. The gruesome Drinkaware television adverts and the National Health Service-sponsored posters are a case in point. They deface the back of every pub toilet door with a clear anti-drinking message. According to them, drinking alcohol leads to unprotected sex, violence and vomit (for the teenagers) and heart disease, liver failure and missed workdays (for the grown-ups).
There is a problem with this. Drinkaware campaigns totally ignore the social benefits of drinking, vilifying the majority of adults. They stifle the integration of young people into a socially acceptable drinking culture while also reinforcing the behavior they attempt to challenge. Adults know that drinking alcohol does not always cause you to throw up. Equally they also know that, no matter how hard some of us may try, a night on the town drinking more often leads to a burger at the end of the night than sex. Health warnings that don’t connect with people’s experience are easily filtered out.
Furthermore, young people are increasingly being taught to fear alcohol and associate it with irresponsibility and self destruction. This doesn’t just come from advertising campaigns: the national curriculum now includes classes on the harmful effects of alcohol and there is a national discussion about whether alcohol should be classed as a drug. According to a recent survey by Childwise, nearly one third of children feel scared when their parents drink alcohol. Often they are encouraged to raise this with parents at home and give them a lecture to raise their awareness about the negative effects of booze. As a result of this fearmongering, young people are increasingly not touching a drop of alcohol until their late-teens: a recent NHS survey also found that the proportion of 11-15 year olds who have had an alcoholic drink has dropped from 61 per cent in 2003 to 52 per cent today.
Socializing with alcohol is fun and we should not pretend otherwise. We also shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that young adults won’t eventually discover this and want to do it themselves. There is a reason why a taste for alcohol is not specific to a single demographic in society; why it is not something we “grow out of” and why, no matter how many times the NHS warns of it detrimental effects, we won’t stop drinking the stuff. That’s because chatting with friends over a pint or a bottle of wine is an enjoyable cultural tradition: the fuel of conversation, intimacy and the exchange of ideas.
We should be encouraging young adults to drink sensibly, but to do this we need to be honest. We do regularly drink more than the government’s daily recommendation of two pints or glasses of wine and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with a drink to unwind, relax and forget about our stressful day at work. More people need to stand up and say this in order to combat the moralizing of anti-alcohol campaigners. We need to integrate young people into our drinking culture earlier, making sure that they learn how to drink rather than forcing them to first encounter alcohol in hiding on a park bench. We should challenge the Drinkaware notion that it’s the norm for young people to be unruly and become sick when drinking, rather than handling their drink sensibly like adults. Instead of teaching young people to fear drink, let’s teach them how best to master its effects.
SUZY DEAN is producing the debate ‘The war on alcohol: new puritanism or healthy sobriety?‘ at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Saturday, October 30.