Stop singling out students: Britain as a whole gets it wrong on alcohol

By drunk and sober (2)

University students these days get a bad press. As if the pressures of fees weren’t enough to put prospective candidates off, relentless media coverage of drunken larks give the impression of a student population which, while bursting with overinflated A-level grades, has a lot to learn in terms of moderation and self control.

And, to an extent, they’re not wrong. While JCRs generally do a good job of highlighting the alternatives to boozy nights out, the expectation remains that at least some of our social events will be accompanied by a large consumption of alcohol. Quaddies have a particularly bad reputation, but drinking elsewhere can be just as likely to get you to a reasonably dangerous point of intoxication, especially given the price of supermarket drinks deals. With this is mind I’ve been taken aback by the lack of such a culture on my year abroad in France, a country where a bottle of (fairly) drinkable wine can be purchased for the equivalent of a couple of pounds and 70% strength absinthe is available on supermarket shelves. I have undoubtedly witnessed drunken parties while at university in Paris, but French students seem less ready to necessarily equate a big night out with enormous intoxication. There is, I believe, a pretty uniquely British approach to student drinking.

But singling out students as the underlying reality of boozy Britain is largely inaccurate, and worse, desperately unfair. Painting binge drinking as a problem among students is lazy journalism and amounts to the victimisation of an underrepresented group in society. A similar snobbery plays out along differences of socio-economic status and regional bias. The ‘shameful’ photos of drunken antics that the Daily Mail delights in publishing on New Year’s Day, in an unjustifiable act of Jeremy Kyle-esque voyeurism, tend to target revellers in Liverpool and our near neighbours Newcastle. Are we to believe for a moment that similar levels of intoxication are not being reached by those seeing in the New Year with cocktails and champagne in Home Counties mansions and fancy London nightclubs?

Alcohol plays a large part in social interaction at all levels of British society. Many have commented on the phenomenon that whilst social events in other cultures take food as their focal point, ours are often centred around drink. Beers to catch up with friends, drinks after work on a Friday, a glass of wine at the theatre. Sports events are no different. Having worked at stadium bars for the Ashes, Wimbledon and Chelsea FC, I can attest that fans of all stripes appreciate a drink or few before the big game.

I’m not for a moment suggesting a general disdain for our drinking culture – a drink makes many things more relaxed and enjoyable. Furthermore, Britain can be proud of its heritage of alcoholic beverages. English ales are unique and the perfect accompaniment to a pub lunch. Our gin and whiskey is exported all over the world. Drinking in itself is not a problem.

Yet problematic drinking exists all over Britain, and not just in university towns. Too often the drinking that began as part of sociable interaction leads to a feeling that a drink is a necessary part of this. The student drinking experience, rather than being separate from this culture, is merely its logical conclusion amongst a group of people who live in close proximity and have more free time on their hands to spend as they see fit.

What can we do to solve our collective drinking problem and the risks that come out of it? In the short term, when there is an immediate danger to students in our community we must take what measures we can to protect each other and encourage the local authorities to support this.

But ultimately, we need to find a sustainable solution by re-examining the relationship between alcohol and our free time. Here, I think there might be something to learn from the French model. Alcohol is not something to be feared, nor abused, but simply enjoyed in moderation. We could do this by paying a bit more attention to the quality of what we drink – few French students go for the €2.50 bottles even if they ‘do the job’. Food undoubtedly plays a part in organising events which aren’t solely about drinking, as does the fact that lots of events happen in interesting bars, rather than nightclubs, which seem to require a base level of drunkenness to enjoy.

There are signs that we’re moving in the right direction. ONS figures suggest that the number of young adults binging at least once a week has fallen substantially in recent years to 18%, and fewer students see alcohol as a prerequisite to having a good time. Britain is fixing its reliance on alcohol – but there is still work to do.


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