By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
The debate about binge drinking has focused mainly on licensing hours and discounted drinks. But could house prices be to blame?
In one night, 20-year-old Jessica Royston has consumed more alcohol than is safe for women to drink over two weeks.
But even after 40 shots of vodka - and vomiting - the fashion student isn't finished yet.
"Party at my house," she says.
Her night out, shown on a BBC series this week, resembles the norm for an estimated six million people, some of whom do it twice or three times a week.
Binge drinking is classed as more then eight units (four pints) in one session for men and more than six units (six small glasses of wine) for women.
The practice is estimated by the government to cost the nation £20bn a year, with serious repercussions for violent crime, health and economic performance.
Part of the government's strategy to combat this is longer opening hours from November, to stop people "binging". The Licensing Act also empowers authorities to close down pubs more easily, install CCTV, bring in new management or reduce licensing hours.
But these measures don't get to the root of the problem which are social and economic, says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.
"Many 20 and 30-somethings can't afford to buy a house, so they're not doing what previous generations did, which was when they reached 25, they started to save for their own homes.
"Now there's no point doing that so they have disposable money which they spend on instant gratification. They say 'I'm 25 and can't invest the money. I may as well blow it and have a good time.'"
As part of the programme, Professor Cooper spent an evening talking to drinkers on the streets of Manchester. Some had spent as much as £75 and most of the revellers he met lived with their parents or in rented shared accommodation.
Home owners would not be as likely to spend that kind of cash on booze, he says, because they have a mortgage and other expenses like furniture and the garden. Plus they are more inclined to socialise and drink at home.
This theory doesn't apply to teenagers, he says, who drink to escape their own pressures, such as academic expectations and financial strain.
The fact so many of this 18-to-35 generation come from broken homes also makes them less likely to invest in houses and relationships themselves, says Professor Cooper.
"I'm not saying marriage was always a stable institution but divorce rates were never higher than now. People had a life to look forward to.
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"This generation says 'Relationships come and go. I can't invest in anything so I may as well enjoy myself.'"
As well as disposable income, other underlying factors driving a binge-drinking culture are the stresses facing young people and the dynamics of group behaviour.
"Younger and younger people are identifying with their peer group as their family group," he says. "And drinking becomes a badge of courage."
Andrew McNeil, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, thinks the major factor is the affordability of alcohol, which has increased over the years. When excise duty has increased, consumption has fallen, he says.
The drinking culture is highly visible
"We're not advocating prohibition by price but we're saying it would be useful to deal properly with heavily discounted promotions by the on-street trade and supermarkets," he says. "And secondly if excise duties were to be properly linked to the growth of incomes, so the tax wasn't diminished."
That may help but it won't solve the problem, says Professor Cooper, whereas parents engaging with their binge-drinking children might.
"Parents have to ask themselves 'Why is my kid going out every Friday or Saturday, getting plastered and blowing all this money?'
"Everyone is looking for a magic bullet but even if you reduced the drinking hours you would still have a problem. I'm not against hiking the tax up either but we would still have a problem."
I'm 26 years old with a 'normal' job. It'd be nice to be able to afford to binge drink, let alone buy a house
I was a binge drinker and it's taken me a long time to break the habit plus a years wonderful counselling from acad. A binge whether food or alcohol or cigarettes is in the eyes of the consumer so putting a limit on it is a bit of a waste of time - half a pint could leave someone depressed and ashamed. Oh and not even a mortgage is going to stop someone who wants to get drunk from getting drunk. I think it has more to do with society as whole being very unfulfilling that we look for cheap thrills and alcohol escape. Not that we have spare cash!
I have to add some balance here. I drink once or twice a week, but 6 units (i.e. a full bottle of wine) is a binge in my book because it's enough to impair my concentration the next morning at work. Those claiming that 4 pints doesn't affect them are either deluding themselves or drinking enough to have developed tolerance. Try abstaining for 6 weeks then starting again and you'll see what I mean.
I'm 33 and there seems to be very little difference between homeowners and non-homeowners amongst my peers in terms of drinking. The home-owners have experienced rising equity over the last few years, so worry less about sticking a few drinks/meals out on their credit cards and eventually paying it off through their mortgage. Also, owning a home and being responsible for all the stuff that goes with it doesn't necessarily make you think there's anything more than hard work to look forward to - so you may as well go down the pub and enjoy yourself while you can.
"Priced out of the market with a large disposable income" has been the definition of life in Japan for decades. Now, while the Japanese DO enjoy a drink, a lot more of that disposable income makes its way into electronics, cars, and designer bags. Maybe we British need to think "Gucci" rather than "Guinness?"
When I was younger I went drinking in pubs in my area. Because families lived closer together and pubs were frequented by the older generation there was always someone in the pub who knew my family. So if I was out-of-order this info would trickle back to my parents. Now we have big city centre pubs with only young people in, families spread around the country and if a youngster drinks too much and started fighting their parents would never know and start disciplining them.
In some other countries being drunk in public is not socially acceptable and not something to be proud of or to boast about later. Here, it is. I think it is less to do with the price of booze or disposable income, and more to do with forms of rebellion and wanting to be "in". We lionise sports people and celebrities for partying, and we copy them. In other countries, this kind of behaviour is seen as pitiable or shameful.
I think the focus of all these reports is wrong. There is less a problem with the "amount" that is drunk (after all, Britain has always been a very drink-centred culture) but with the "behaviour" of those who are drunk. This behaviour is very much a result of current social issues.
This isn't tremendously shocking is it? If you look at the demographic of people who own homes, they are, in general, older and with families. Which makes it harder to go and get lashed of an evening - it's not the owning of a house that stops people drinking; it's all the other accoutrements of having more responsibility. And yes, the levels of 'binge drinking' are low. Perhaps we should move away from the term 'binge drinking' and actually work out what we're trying to show with this metric? No one has explained to me yet why drinking at this level is 'bad' for society.
Beware. I drank four pints of Stella down the pub a couple of times a week for years. Add in tin or two every other day or so at home and I knew I was close to the 28 unit guidelines. Never was I drunk.
I got a shock when I visited the doctor with upper abdominal pains. At 36 I had an enlarged, fatty liver and a blood test showed the early signs of damage. Luckily I got a warning so I can change my ways but remember you don't need to be an alcoholic or drink yourself silly to do harm to yourself.
40 shots of vodka? It must be the most watered down stuff for sale in the UK. Get trading standards round there straightaway. 4 pints is a ridiculous definition of binge drinking - people would take more notice of this if was set at a realistic level, say 8 pints in a night or 50% of your sensible weekly limit in one sitting.
I kind of agree that UK house prices are a factor in all this. I have been caught out by the rise in prices while saving for a deposit. The whole rising prices against my slower saving rate ability means I do now have a deposit, but am reluctant to buy due to the large amount of money I'm going to have to borrow (and eventually pay back over many years). In the space of a few years, I'm now questioning is it worth buying in the near future? And as my rent is less than a mortgage, I do have cash to spend on other things, and yes I go out very often with friends for a drink. But the other factor in this is that I don't drink to excess, and prefer to spend money on having a great time doing other things too, like holidays or short breaks, or motorbikes (or cars for that matter).
J Moore, England
Surely a major cause of the problems we face in the UK today are a direct result of businesses moving from the town centre to out of town locations? Often the only people willing to pay the rent on town centre buildings were pubs and bars. This led to a high concentration of establishments in a small area and the associated problem of hundreds of drunken people in the same area at the same time. I seriously doubt people today drink more than they did 20 or 30 years ago.
Tom MacGowan, Frankfurt, Germany
I'm 23, I attended a public school, got top A-level grades, a 2:1 in History from Leeds University and since graduating have worked in a pub and a call centre (where I currently work). The prospect of me owning my own house in the forseeable future is laughable. The number of graduates these days makes it incredibly difficult to get a job that pays enough to even consider owning my own house. In fact one of the few enjoyable experiences I have is a friday or saturday night where I can go out and drink away the week. Binge drinking isn't just because people don't have mortgages - it's also because an increasing number of young people have lost faith in their short-term futures. Cheers!
Stuart Cameron, UK
If the fact that something is out of your reach just now, therefore means "blow it" rather than save it till it comes within your reach, than the level of common sense in Britain has dropped even lower than I ever anticipated.
Ana Brakel, UK, London
We probably don't really drink more than our parents some 20 years ago but there does seem to be more 'fun & games' on the high street, which high spirits can lead to vandalism and violence. This is probably because there are so many people with disposable money courtesy of the 'debt culture' that is now so apparent. Don't worry, the impending recession will soon put a dampener on everyone's high spirits. In the next couple of years there will be a sudden increase in manufacturing and business failures that will reduce the number of service industries required in town centres. Thus, our town centres will be calm and free of the 'enthusiastic binge drinker' once more.
People 'binge-drink' because they enjoy it and they're being sociable. Just because they can't afford a house doesn't mean that they spend all their money on booze instead.
Four pints is a binge? What a joke. Time for the social conservatives to get a life and get out a bit more. Three pints is a good lunch. We're Canadian, eh?
David Shaw, Canada
So if I have two cocktails in one evening I'm a binge drinker? I'm not drunk, I'm not throwing up or starting fights but somehow I'm a danger to the public. Of course social and economic factors cause this, you live in a crummy shared house because that's all you can afford, work all hours god sends.. what else are you going to do with your spare time? Cinemas cost the earth and there are very few good films out, everything costs the earth in fact. The long working hours we have in this country are also the reason I will welcome the new opening hours. If I work till 10.30 at night and want to go for a drink after work I am not a menace to society. The damage caused by binge drinking is done by a minority of people, you can't brand everyone who has the odd night out as a trouble maker.
J Fischer, UK
The person who decided to define binge drinking at only four pints did their cause no good at all. I am 54 and normally only drink a couple of pints in an evening, but I think this Thursday I will push the boat out and go for four pints, so that I too can join the binge drinkers club.
But isn't the analysis flawed - excuse me if I am wrong. There is also the possibility that people drink more when the value of their properties increase. People who enjoy an appreciation in their assets, of which property is just one, tend to enjoy more leisure time - drinking being an activity which people engage in and enjoy during free-time. I don't believe this point can be excluded here.
Darren E Cooper, London
I do think that binge-drinking reflects a sense of hopelessness regarding the future, rather than it simply being about using spare income. I earn more than my parents ever did (even accounting for inflation) but can't imagine ever being able to live in the sort of place I was brought up in until I'm retired myself. I think this issue shows itself in other ways too, such as 'binge borrowing' to buy things like new cars, expensive foreign holidays and the like. Besides, I think house prices are so depressingly expensive that having a drink and forgetting about it can seem like a good solution. The only people who have no need to anesthetise their sense of despair are those who have already climbed the property ladder.
My friends have a lot of spare cash to spend, because none of them are saving anything for the future. They feel that buying a house is completely out of their reach so they can just spend all their salary. I restrict my spending and drink less so now I can afford to buy a house. Binge drinking is directly related to whether you can see something in your future worth saving for- whether it is a house, or a wedding- whatever.
To say that four pints is the benchmark to be a binge drinker will not be taken seriously by anybody who drinks regularly, I used to be out up to five nights a week ten years ago and four pints was the minimum, just like most generations before me. It is true that owning a home reduces your time in the pub as i have recently found out. In many towns and cities the amount of licensed venues has more than doubled in the last few years, which as certainly increased the amount of people on the street at 11pm or 2am.
Hmm, thought provoking stuff...anyone fancy discussing this over a pint or 3 this lunch-time?
Surely if this was the case, when house prices were lower there would have been more binge drinking as even home owners could afford it. Correlation does not prove cause and effect.
Martin Hill, England
I'm loving this excuse! - "I had to drink 9 pints and vomit on myself - the current state of the housing market MADE me do it!!"
What next? - "I turned to drugs because the price of petrol went up!?"
Only 6 units? I am shocked to hear the level for 'binge drinking' is so low!
News stories about binge-drinking (including yours BBC!) always use examples of young people who are so smashed out of their gourds they can hardly walk.
I had two alchopops Friday night - little did I know that if I drank just one more I would be teetering towards the dangerously anti-social underworld of the binge-drinkers.
(By the way, I am 30, have a family, and still can't afford to buy a house. But this is due to insane property prices, the fact my parents could not afford to help me on the ladder, and the ££ it cost me to attend uni - not the £3.60 I spent on Smirnoff last Friday.)
M S, Sussex
Thanks for your comments. The debate is now closed.