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Growing up with risk$

Betsy Thom, Rosemary Sales, and Jenny Pearce

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781861347329

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861347329.001.0001

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Alcohol: protecting the young, protecting society

Alcohol: protecting the young, protecting society

(p.240) (p.241) fourteen Alcohol: protecting the young, protecting society
Growing up with risk

Betsy Thom

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses how the protection of children from risk and the control of ‘risky’ youth behaviour have influenced the formation of alcohol policy in two historical periods: at the turn of the twentieth century and again at the turn of the twenty-first. Although both issues – protection and control – were important at both times, ‘protection’ has been chosen to illustrate policy approaches in the earlier period and ‘control’ for the later period. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a strong emphasis on the protection of children from adult behaviour, including parental use of alcohol and the exposure of children to drink and drinking environments. By contrast, from the late tweneieth century till the present time, public concern has focused on young people who are seen as ‘out of control’, and policy responses aim to address the threat posed by young people's drinking to public health and social order.

Keywords:   child protection, alcohol policy, young people, drinking, public health, social order


The physical, psychological, social and economic risks of alcohol misuse have received much attention in recent years and the dangers of excessive drinking, especially by young people, have been prominent in policy debate (PMSU, 2004). However, it is recognised that, in a society where most people drink, young people need to learn how to drink without incurring risks to themselves or others. The process includes both cognitive learning about alcohol and its effects and experiential learning about what is appropriate and acceptable in different social contexts.

Awareness of the risks involved in alcohol use and the development of strategies to manage risks mark the transition from childhood to adulthood; risk taking, like alcohol use, is a feature of growing up, which entails experimentation and boundary testing, trial and error. As Honess et al (2000, p vii) have commented, drinking is as much ‘young people’ behaviour as ‘adult’ behaviour and interventions to address risk need to operate within that context.

Thus, alcohol policy faces the challenge of protecting the young from the risks of alcohol misuse without hindering the process of learning to manage alcohol and avoid alcohol-related harm. At the same time, alcohol policy is a complex arena where diverse social groups and stakeholders hold different – and often conflicting – views on alcohol and its uses (Thom, 2005). Policy statements emerge from a sea of contested facts and the interests of the economy or the safety of communities may take precedence over the needs of young people. Indeed, as is the case in recent years, young people's use of alcohol is frequently portrayed as a matter of concern and a threat to society.

This chapter discusses how the protection of children from risk and the control of ‘risky’ youth behaviour have influenced the formation (p.242) of alcohol policy in two historical periods, at the turn of the 20th century and again at the turn of the 21st century. Although both issues, protection and control, were important at both times (Humphries, 1995), ‘protection’ has been chosen to illustrate policy approaches in the earlier period and ‘control’ for the later period. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a strong emphasis on the protection of children from adult behaviour, including parental use of alcohol and the exposure of children to drink and drinking environments. By contrast, from the late 20th century till the present time, public concern has focused on young people who are seen as ‘out of control’ and policy responses aim to address the threat posed by young people's drinking to public health and social order. Clearly, there have been vast changes in the social and environmental contexts of young people's lives, in understanding of the concept of childhood and in the nature of ‘risk’. There are, nevertheless, common strands of concern, which span the 19th to the 21st century. In both periods, the notion of ‘failed parenting’ and the relationship between the family and the state emerge as controversial undertones in policy debate; in both periods, the policy ‘gaze’ has singled out some social groups above others as cause for concern; and in both periods children and young people's perceptions and management of risk are subsumed to an adult view of the world, which frequently highlights problem or ‘deviant’ behaviour rather than providing a rounded picture of young people's lives.

Suffer little children – challenging the demon drink

The foul and fetid breath of our slums is almost as poisonous as that of the African swamp. Fever is almost as chronic there as on the Equator. Every year thousands of children are killed off by what is called defects of our sanitary system. They are in reality starved and poisoned … much of the misery of those whose lot we are considering arises from their own habits. Drunkenness and all manner of uncleanness, moral and physical, abound. Have you ever watched by the bedside of a man in delirium tremens? Multiply the sufferings of that one drunkard by the hundred thousand and you have some idea of what scenes are being witnessed in all our great cities at this moment.

(Booth, 1890, p 14)

The quotation is indicative not only of the social conditions of the poor in Victorian England, but also of a shift towards concern for the (p.243) welfare of children (Hendrick, 1994). The establishment of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) (in 1884) drew public attention to the plight of many children, especially those from poor and ‘vulnerable’ families. Throughout the 19th century, state intervention aimed to protect the young by securing their exclusion from harmful environments – such as factories and mines – and their inclusion in environments – such as schools – designed to mould the citizens of the future (Humphries, 1995). But state intervention was not without opposition, especially in the private sphere of the family, and the passing of the first Act of Parliament for the prevention of cruelty to children (1889), came only after heavy lobbying (NSPCC, undated). It is against this backdrop of change in the perceived needs for protection and control of children and young people that we turn to an examination of policy on alcohol.

Over the course of the 19th century, ‘the demon drink’ became inextricably linked in political debate with health and social problems, from insanity (McCandless, 1984), to family poverty (Rowntree and Sherwell, 1900), and the degeneration of the race (Bynum, 1984). The debates were fuelled by social reformers, professionals (especially doctors) and powerful lobbying groups such as the Temperance Movement and the Society for the Study of Inebriety. These groups amassed a vast body of ‘evidence’, which was used in public campaigns and in political lobbying for legislation to address the drink question. Subsequent critiques of the evidence have revealed its limitations, (McCandless, 1984). Nevertheless, the Temperance Movement, growing in strength and in medical and political alliances during the second half of the 19th century, seized on the evidence and disseminated it in numerous pamphlets, journal papers and public lectures, one of the many objectives being to influence national policy on alcohol.

Temperance ideals also underpinned the efforts of philanthropist factory owners and city planners to tackle the culture of drunkenness that permeated many of the trades and the habits of working-class life (King, 1979). For instance, in local areas such as Hornsey in London, new housing estates were built with regulations that forbade the establishment of public houses within a certain radius of the estate (The Builder, 1883). The belief that many physical, mental and social problems could be eradicated by appropriate intervention in public and family life, found its strongest expression in attempts to save children from the vice of inebriety. ‘Bands of Hope’ provided an environment within which young people could be engaged in educational and leisure activities and instructed in the temperance ‘world view’, which (p.244) entailed taking a pledge of abstinence from alcohol (Shiman, 1988). Shiman notes, however, that the Bands of Hope were attended mainly by the respectable working class, failing to attract middle-class children and children from the poorest sectors of society.

The emotive picture of slum and working-class misery caused by drunkenness was supported by social research and ‘political arithmetic’. Rowntree and Sherwell (1900) used statistical data, in particular a range of calculations showing the percentage of working-class income spent on alcohol categorised by different occupations and trades. Their research – applauded by contemporaries for its scientific rigour – was intended to demonstrate the dangers of alcohol to respectable working-class families living on the margins of poverty and, therefore, at risk of sliding towards degradation. Although concerned about the effects of alcohol on individuals and families, Rowntree and Sherwell shared, with others of their era, a belief that excessive alcohol use, especially among the working classes, posed a serious economic threat to society as a whole. In an age of international competition, they argued that the expenditure of one sixth of working-class income on alcohol indicated ‘a grave national peril’ since ‘a nation must be seriously handicapped if two months’ earnings of its working classes are spent every year upon drink’ (Rowntree and Sherwell, 1904, p 2).

Concern for the well-being of children also fuelled critiques of women's behaviour. By the turn of the 19th century, women's drinking was a recurrent feature of debates on ‘racial deterioration’ (Gutzke, 1984). Statistical, observational and anecdotal evidence was used to build the case for alarm especially in poverty-stricken areas of Britain where, it was reported, women constituted up to a third of drinkers in public houses and, in some places, equalled men in number (Gutzke, 1984, pp 72–3). Rowntree and Sherwell (1900) estimated that, between 1877 and 1896, alcohol-related mortality had risen by 43% for men and by 104% for women and noted that approximately 28–30% of drunkenness offences were committed by women. Practices such as ‘giving the young ‘un a taste’ by wetting a baby's lips with gin and water were observed in public houses (Sims, 1889, cited in Gutzke, 1984, p 77). Evidence to the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Hours (1897) provided similar examples, for instance the comment from Mr C. L. Rothera, a practising solicitor and coroner from the Borough of Nottingham, that, ‘I have seen children in perambulators drinking beer’ (p 10943). Robert Parr (1911), director of the NSPCC, in a lecture delivered to the Lancashire and Cheshire Band of Hope and Temperance Union, estimated that 90% of cases of neglect coming (p.245) to their attention were the result of excessive drinking by one or both parents.

Infant mortality, in particular, became central to the campaigns against alcohol and more specifically against the lifestyles of women in the working classes. Led by eminent medical ‘temperance’ doctors, the effects of drink on pregnant women, infants and ‘mothering’ became the lever for securing policy change. The momentum for change was accelerated when the publicist George Sims mounted a campaign to draw attention to the environmental risks faced by babies and young children in public houses. In a series of six articles published in the Tribune in 1907, Sims blamed mothers and alcohol for children's exposure to a foul, smoky atmosphere, changes in temperature going to and from the public house, and disease such as tuberculosis contracted from crawling and playing in the dirty sawdust covering the floors (Gutzke, 1984).

Thus, by the turn of the 20th century, the rearing of physically and mentally robust children had become a key issue in concern to address the fear of progressive hereditary degeneration especially among the working class and the poor whose use of alcohol was seen as compounding the risks to their children (Bynum, 1984). By then, some legislative reforms had been achieved: from 1872, it was illegal to sell spirits in licensed premises to children under 16 years old and, from 1886, children under the age of 13 were not permitted to buy alcohol for consumption on licensed premises (Home Office, 2000); but these reforms were deemed inadequate by campaigners concerned with the protection of children and the health of the nation. Babies and young children were still allowed in public houses and children continued to act as ‘messengers’ buying alcohol to take home. After much debate, in 1902 the Child Messenger Bill forbade the practice of parents sending children to buy a jug of alcohol for home consumption and in 1908, partly as a result of Sims’ efforts, children under the age of 14 were excluded from the bar (but could be elsewhere on the premises).

At the same time, the drive to link alcohol with issues such as child neglect and other social ills met opposition and had to be balanced against securing other policy reforms. Objections came not just from the alcohol trade but from people petitioned to support the cause of child protection. Some feared that they might be sent to prison for ‘giving baby gin for wind!’; others were indignant at the thought of not being able ‘to give my children a glass of wine on their birthdays’ (The Child's Guardian, 1888, vol 2, no 23, p 109). The intention to include further restrictions on selling intoxicating drink to children (p.246) in the 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act, was ‘greatly mutilated in its course through Parliament’ so that, in the opinion of commentators at the time, it became a useless mockery. Indeed, it was recognised that clauses of the Act forbidding spirituous liquor to children had to be dropped to prevent the Bill being blocked on its way through Parliament (The Child's Guardian, 1887, vol 1, no 1, p 11).

Controversy also surrounded the parliamentary debates preceding the passing of the 1902 Licensing Act. Reports in the Lancet covering successive readings of the Bill, criticised the ‘constant habit of Ministers of finding excuses for postponing its consideration’, stressed the countrywide consensus that condemned serving alcohol to children and emphasised the importance of keeping children out of public houses (Lancet, 1900, vol 1, pp 788–9). While the Lancet disagreed strongly with those who regarded legislation as state interference with parental rights and responsibilities (Lancet, 1900, vol 1, p 1085), opponents argued that the proposed licensing reform was ‘paternal’, that it was instigated by the ‘collared’ portion of the community against the ‘collarless’ (Lancet, 1900, vol 1, pp 1454–5), arguments that were countered in turn by noting that, ‘evidence was given proving that the proposed legislation is much desired by the working classes in the north’ (Lancet, 1900, vol 1, p 1603). Similar splits in opinion, and in perceptions of the facts, were revealed in the statements given to the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Hours (1897). Superintendent Lucas of the West Clapham police division in London said that selling to underage children was not a prevalent offence (p 5078), an assessment supported by a London police magistrate who reported very few instances of offences by licence holders (p 3579). Temperance sources in Manchester seemed to disagree, noting that 1,764 out of 2,922 licensed houses were in the habit of serving children (Lancet, 1900, vol 2, p 1103). Lucas also expressed doubts about the apparent consensus on preventing children buying alcohol for parents. He was of the view that, ‘It would be very hard on poor people, the mother having been out washing or at work all day, that she must not send a child to get her supper beer’ (Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Hours, 1897, p 5115).

In short, infant mortality and child welfare served as an emotive policy driver and the protection of children from the risks of parental drinking and from exposure to harmful drinking environments provided a platform on which anti-drink campaigners could attempt to build consensus across interest and pressure groups. The exposure of children to the risks of alcohol furnished a rationale for raising (p.247) support to challenge the state, the alcohol trade and the lifestyles of the working classes. From the 1880s until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, alcohol consumption was a highly political issue intertwined with broader national priorities (Greenaway, 2003). Concern for the protection of children as ‘victims’ has to be seen within this context where children are also viewed as both an ‘investment’ and a ‘threat’, due to their ‘value’ as future healthy, economically productive citizens (Hendrick, 1994).

Lager louts and binge drinkers: the risk to society

Alcohol's high policy profile waned after the outbreak of war in 1914 and the level of public concern and interest in alcohol remained low throughout subsequent decades (Baggott, 1990). Issues regarding the well-being of children and young people were never entirely absent from policy and professional literature; but aside from concerns expressed by the Temperance Movement – in rapid decline after the Second World War – little policy attention was paid to young people's access to alcohol, their exposure to public drinking environments or their drinking behaviour.

By the 1980s the situation had begun to change and when alcohol emerged again on the policy agenda, attention had become fixed on youth behaviour as ‘threat’. Rising alcohol consumption, the greater availability of alcohol, more liberal approaches to drinking and changing youth cultures were some of the factors that resulted in new ‘moral panics’ around youthful drinking. At first, concerns were directed towards specific subgroups of young people. ‘Lager louts’, ‘champagne Charlies’, alcohol-fuelled football hooligans, ‘ladettes’ – girls who drank like boys – and underage drinking hit the media headlines from time to time but did not result in sustained interest in young people's alcohol consumption (Parker et al, 1998, p 51). In fact, changes in young people's leisure pursuits, including the expansion of a dance/rave culture, were accompanied by a decrease in young people's spending in public houses (Parker et al, 1998, pp 53–4). Illicit drug use became the new source of anxiety and, as Parker et al (1998, p 29) comment:

this continuous focus on young people's drug taking makes this the single most talked about, written and broadcast about item in contemporary discourses about the state of the young in the UK.

(p.248) Media coverage and policy responses to youthful substance use tended to adopt a ‘risk’ perspective, emphasising the dangers of drug use and the perceived links to other ‘risky’ behaviours, such as unprotected sex, unwanted pregnancy, crime and poor parenting. What seemed especially alarming was the apparent spread of drug use into ‘mainstream’ youth culture, although this claim was hotly disputed in the literature (for example, Shiner and Newburn, 1999). As with alcohol a century earlier, protection of the young from drug misuse and protection of society from the young became politically embroiled in a range of social problems from juvenile delinquency and school dropout to dysfunctional families (especially single mothers), antisocial behaviour and community safety. Again, attention turned towards sectors of society deemed to be ‘at risk’ of falling through the net of social care and control. Changes in women's drinking, too, began to raise alarm but, this time around, ‘moral panic’ approaches were countered by strong opposition from feminist activists working in research and service provision (Thom, 1997a). As a result, arguments proposing an association between women's drinking and changes in women's social roles with the drinking behaviour of the young gained little headway even in a climate of increasing scrutiny on parenting and continuing policy intervention in family matters.

In contrast to the earlier period, when child protection was used as a dominant rationale for policy change, the latter part of the 20th century saw the emergence of a ‘culture of blame’ directed towards young people's alcohol and drug use. Children and young people were still the ‘victims’ of drug dealing and substance misuse but a more dominant public image was rapidly building up; the young now presented a threat to their families and communities and an economic burden on the state through their substance-using behaviour. This time the threat stemmed directly from the young themselves rather than from the accident of birth – into deprived circumstances or ‘alcoholic’ families – blamed in the earlier period for the moral and physical weakness of the working classes and unruly youth behaviour. The shifting response from protection to control is particularly clear if we look at youth from around 14 years of age.

By the 1990s, the regulations governing the drinking behaviour of children and young people had been altered in successive licensing Acts (see Box 14.1) and the extension of the period of ‘childhood’, through longer schooling, delay in entering the workplace and delay in assuming other adult roles, resulted in a new group of young adults still negotiating the boundaries between childhood and the adult world. It was the behaviour of this group that increasingly seemed to pose a (p.249) challenge to society and which became associated with an ever-expanding range of social problems.

Numerous interpretations of the reasons for problem substance use have emerged from the literature. Marketing to the young, in particular the marketing of alcopops, attracted attention for a time (Wright, 1999). Theories of a class-based clash between differing normative and moral frames of action, advanced in analyses of working-class childhood and youth between 1889–1939 (Humphries, 1995, pp 21–3), found an echo in historical accounts of alcohol consumption in other periods (for example, Warner, 2003) and in sociological ‘underclass’ and social structural explanations for problem substance use (for example, see summary in Neale, 2002). Other research has examined alcohol and drug use as a phenomenon within contemporary societies, which goes beyond class and subcultural differences. Writing about ‘antisocial behaviour’ in The Guardian, Robert Colls, Professor of English history (p.250) at the University of Leicester, sees changes in youth behaviour as part of mass cultural shifts:

The youth labour market has virtually disappeared. The link between apprenticeship, work, sexuality and marriage has been cut. Associational life has lost its civic, moral and religious significance. In Britain the use of drink and drugs is the highest in Europe…. Add to this the transformation of town centres into late-night drink marts, widespread drug use and the mass communication of hedonistic and transgressive lifestyles and one can begin to see the conditions for one of those shifts in cultural mass that mark our history.

(The Guardian, 3 December 2003)

The feeling that young people are no longer linked to the social and moral fabric of community life is echoed in other analyses of contemporary society. Alexander (2004) considers alcohol misuse as one manifestation of an increasingly addicted society, a symptom of the mass-produced social dislocation attendant on free market economies in which marginalised, less integrated groups of young people are at greater risk of becoming dependent on alcohol and drugs. According to other accounts, the loss of external controls on behaviour has been countered to some extent by an increasing awareness and concern around ‘risk’ and risk management. For example, Tigerstedt (1999, cited in Bergmark, 2004, p 10) has suggested that the internalisation of risk information acts as a ‘new form of remote control’. Casting doubt on this explanation, Bergmark contends that risk information on substances, embedded within a flood of generalised risk information, merely increases the degree of uncertainty that characterises modern society and may be especially pertinent when considering youth behaviour. However, within societies where cultural change may be eroding traditional forms of interaction and traditional controls on individual behaviour, the role of risk perception, risk factors and risk assessment has come to the fore in identifying individuals and groups likely to require intervention of one sort or another. Undoubtedly, this is a significant factor in directing the policy and professional gaze towards social groups already labelled as ‘difficult’ or problematic.

A key question running through the literature and in discourses on young people's substance use is the extent to which use is an individual choice or the result of social and contextual factors largely outside individual control. Some research studies explain drug and alcohol (p.251) use as linked to the culture of consumption and postmodern society's preoccupation with individual choice and self-fulfilment (for example, Brain et al, 2000); substance use has become ‘normalised’ as an accepted part of youth recreation (Parker et al, 1998). Although recognising the importance of social and cultural contexts on behaviour, this body of research also highlights ways in which young people frame their drug use as ‘consumption’ decisions, a perception that stresses the user as an active agent pursuing rational means to facilitate social interaction, achieve a ‘buzz’ or purchase ‘time out’ from daily life. Although risk and harm are experienced, users make decisions about how, when and with whom they will drink or use other drugs. Brain et al (2000, pp 15–16) describe some young drinkers who might be considered as ‘drinking delinquents’ as engaging in a ‘structured form of ‘bounded’ hedonistic consumption’ within which their drinking was constrained by the demands of school or family. Comments made by the young people interviewed by Brain et al (2000) are illustrative of substance management strategies:

Midweek you don’t drink ‘cos of school … you can’t get up in the morning.

(Female, aged 15)

Have to go somewhere where nobody sees us. If I go somewhere and they know me Mum I’m fucked aren’t I?

(Male, aged 14, indicating the importance of family supervision)

This picture emerges also from a study of young men's drinking in East London, which illustrated how young men between the ages of 16 and 24 moved through, and between, eight different drinking styles from ‘childhood’ to ‘adolescent’, ‘experimental’, ‘recreational’, ‘safe’, ‘therapeutic’ and ‘structured’ in the transition to adulthood. Even within the group of ‘recreational’ drinking styles, where excess drinking and intentionally getting drunk were a common feature of having fun, having ‘a laugh’ and taking risks, decisions regarding when and where to indulge in this sort of behaviour were tempered by considerations of cost, competing priorities with other significant activities and keeping safe (Harnett et al, 2000).

Research on a friendship group, undertaken in the late 1990s, also showed how young people moved through different drinking styles and drinking behaviours as they learned about alcohol and about (p.252) how to manage the risk of negative effects. Jason, who started to drink when he was 15, described how:

It wasn’t long ago that I used to drink the super beers, the strong beers. I used to drink normal beer first of all then Steve started drinking super beers and he got me on – I didn’t like the flavour, it tastes like treacle, but you get used to it after a while; but following that I used to drink them quite a few times and every morning I used to get up and it was normal for me before I go to work … just go in the toilet and puke, and sometimes it was blood, and I cut them down since then. If I had one now I’d be sick … it's disgusting.

(Thom, 1997b)

Other young people changed their drinking as they began to discard more youthful images or take on adult responsibilities. Natalie, for instance, avoided one club because it was ‘full of young, about 15, 16 year olds getting really drunk and acting really stupid. They are just screaming about’. Following the birth of her son, Sarah, Steve's partner, had restricted her preferred style – drinking to intoxication – to a few special occasions (Thom, 1997b).

The recognition that ‘normal’ young people participate in binge drinking is now reflected in media reports. In one newspaper review article, ‘On the streets of binge Britain’, the author highlights the fact that young binge drinkers can no longer be categorised as ‘yobs’; they are conventional young people who work hard and play hard and see getting drunk as an aspect of personal choice. Mark is a typical example:

I work my arse off from Monday to Friday as an engineer in the petrochemical business and during the week I don’t want to go out … on Friday nights I’m going to have some beers. I’m going to have 10 or 11 beers…. Yes I may be damaging myself but that's my right.

(Rayner, The Observer, 5 September 2004, pp 1–2)

As indicated by the title of the newspaper item, such accounts from the perspective of young people themselves are, however, still embedded within reports that highlight the behaviours as problematic and threatening.

(p.253) Protection and control: a policy dilemma?

Although insights from academic research and from accounts by young drinkers filter into the policy arena over time, policy and practice responses to alcohol-related risks and problems are more often informed by a very different base of empirical ‘evidence’ drawn predominantly from quantitative survey data on substance use and associated harms and from research studies on ‘what works’ by way of harm prevention, treatment and enforcement strategies (for example, Hibell et al, 1997a, 1997b; Plant et al, 1997; Babor et al, 2003).

The picture to emerge from survey evidence shows that:

  • The proportion of young people under the age of 16 who drink has fluctuated between 20% and 27% since 1990; but those who do drink are consuming more.

  • Compared to teenagers in other European countries, British youngsters are more likely to get drunk and to report problems associated with alcohol use.

  • Young people aged 16–24 have the highest consumption compared to other age groups and are the most likely to binge drink; around 55% of men and 45% of women reported drinking more than the recommended guidelines on at least one day in the previous week.1

  • Trend data since the 1970s show a rise in consumption by young women, an increase in the proportion exceeding recommended guidelines, a rise in ‘binge’ drinking and participation in a diversity of drinking ‘cultures’, which include patterns of consumption associated with risk (PMSU, 2003, pp 16–20).

There is no doubt that there are risks associated with underage consumption and heavy episodic (or binge) drinking. A study by Coleman and Cater (2005), for example, of underage ‘risky’ drinking among teenagers, aged 14–17 with experience of drinking in unsupervised environments, documented problems relating to health outcomes (sexual experiences, injuries, fighting, drug use, intoxication), safety outcomes (walking home alone, daring behaviour and pranks, dangerous driving) and legal outcomes (trouble with the police). At the same time, the authors note that most of the young people reported enjoying risky drinking and the study revealed that even among a group that might be considered ‘high risk’, safety strategies were adopted, in this case drinking in groups and eating adequately before drinking. Studies exploring self-reported motivations to drink and get drunk commonly find that ‘pushing the boundaries’ and feelings (p.254) of invulnerability are as important as having fun, easing social interaction or unexpected loss of control in explaining alcohol-related risk behaviour (Harnett et al, 2000; Coleman and Cater, 2005). For a minority of young people, aggression and disorderly behaviour are expected as part of the drinking occasion and characterise a good night out (Honess et al, 2000).

Whatever the facts about alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, media coverage and political discourse have generated a public image of youth as engaging in risky drinking and leisure behaviour that pose a threat to the peace and security of communities. Current policy statements indicate the strength of these concerns. One of the objectives of the 1998 10-year strategy ‘Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain’ (HM Government, 1998) was to protect communities from drug-related anti-social and criminal behaviour, and considerable emphasis in criminal justice responses is directed towards young offenders. The government consultation paper Drinking Responsibly states that a fundamental change in attitude is required, ‘so that binge and underage drinking are no longer regarded as socially acceptable’ (Home Office, 2005, p 3). At the local level, alcohol licensing policies and guidance for applicants stress the duties of licensees to ensure order within and around their premises. Licensing policies are viewed as one aspect of measures to control antisocial behaviour and as linked to strategies such as Safer Communities, and Crime and Drugs, and Youth Partnership where the focus is often on the activities of young people. However, policy strategy rarely addresses key issues such as the differences between young people, the facilitation – or impeding – of the process of learning to drink without incurring undue risk, the possible adverse effects of the application of a rigid drinking age demarcation, or the need to consider youth drinking as an aspect of youth cultures.

Addressing youth behaviour has become as much a political ball game today as was protecting child welfare a century ago. In both cases, research has played a role in constructing a policy-relevant issue and in building a case around which to campaign for consensus between different interest groups and secure policy action. Just as the protection of children from alcohol-related harm was an emotive research and policy driver in the 19th century, fear of young people's antisocial behaviour is a key element in current responses to alcohol. After many years when alcohol issues had a low policy profile, it could be argued that perceptions of the use of alcohol by young people and associated social and public health risks has been a major factor in raising the importance of alcohol on policy agendas. The problem, as in former (p.255) times, arises in trying to balance concerns for protection with concerns for controlling the problem aspects of drinking behaviour in a policy arena where economic, social and health interests are frequently in competition. Politics and expediency rather than ‘evidence’ or the needs of young people may be seen as determining the policy outcomes (for example, Room, 2004). In a society where the use of alcohol is culturally integrated into the lifestyles of most people, there is still a lack of understanding about the process of learning to use and manage alcohol and about the ways in which society, families and young people themselves learn about ‘growing up with risk’. In particular, dominant stereotypes of youth and youth behaviour need to be challenged by closer examination of ‘mainstream’ youth and the differences between groups of young people in drinking cultures, patterns and behaviours.



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(1) Government recommended daily drinking guidelines: a maximum intake of two to three units for women and three to four units for men; alcohol free days are recommended. The measure of ‘binge’ drinking is six or more units for women and eight or more units for men on a single occasion. A unit is approximately 8g of pure alcohol (PMSU, 2003, 2004).