Binge Drinking

It’s commonplace, at least in some sections of the tabloid press, and the outer reaches of satellite TV, to see young people portrayed as drunken delinquents, only interested in binge-drinking, sex or preferably both, one after the other. However, the story that’s obscured by these media constructions of moral panic is more complicated.

Let’s be clear too, drunkenness and its control, especially in the UK, has a long history. How different are today’s media representations of drunkenness from, say, the prints of Hogarth?

For the ‘ruined mothers’ of Gin Alley, alcohol may have acted as temporary respite from the filth, stench, degradation, violence and brutal poverty of 18th century London. But research conducted by my colleague Lin Bailey, shows that for today’s young women, an optimal level of drunkenness is a necessary prerequisite for a pleasurable night out. However, you would be hard pressed to find any acknowledgement of the pleasures of drinking alcohol in ‘official’ accounts and this raises the question of what else is being glossed over?

The Government, through its Chief Medical Officer’s recent misguided attempt to introduce new ‘safe’ alcohol levels, is trying to put the genie back in the bottle; conveniently forgetting, that it’s a genie of its own political and economic creation, an enactment of its own neo-liberal ideology.

Today’s excessive drinking culture is an effect of an ever-evolving mix of factors, whose commonality lies in their relationship to the new market economics of Thatcherism in the 1980s and continued by Blairism in the 1990s and 2000s.

The market for the supply of alcohol was deregulated resulting in ‘tied’ pubs losing their dominance in the on-trade supply of alcohol. Meanwhile, attention also turned to rejuvenating the crumbling, post-industrial landscape of urban Britain. However, alongside State investment, it was left to the private sector to drive this rejuvenation, giving rise to what’s been dubbed the night-time economy (NTE). 

New market entrants, free from brewery ties, emerged and the old pub landlords and landladies, serving a predominantly male clientele, were replaced by bar managers.

They are far less concerned or interested in ‘their regulars’ well-being than they are in meeting their weekly sales targets faxed through from head-office.

Banned in the mid-1990s, from the ashes of rave culture an entrepreneurial dance culture rose, phoenix-like, to spearhead the NTE.  Clubbers, like the ravers before them, weren’t too interested in alcohol, preferring instead the psychoactive properties of Ecstasy.

After-all, highly energetic dancing isn’t really helped by a bellyful of beer. 

The drinks industry responded with a slew of new product innovations designed to get young people drinking alcohol again. “Designer” ready-to-drink alcohol that was cheap to produce, highly profitable and potent, emerged to appeal to the “psychoactive” consumer of the NTE. Given the media’s increasing opprobrium of young people’s late night activities, the decision of the Blair Government in 2004, to deregulate licensing hours and introduce 24 hour licensing now seems naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. However, those in favour of free markets claim it’s been a success. Exactly where are they hanging out on a Friday night?

And of course, as the price of alcohol relative to income declined, the volume of alcohol consumed increased.

But most importantly the clubs and wine bars of this new NTE are far more female friendly. Coupled with bold and brassy marketing campaigns extolling the pleasure to be found in drinking, the alcohol industry was finally realising the potential of a young, affluent, female “target” market.

Fast-forward to today, however, and it’s not all unalloyed pleasure, especially for young women. Getting drunk is also tough emotional work. My colleague at Bath Chris Griffin, calls this young women’s ‘impossible dilemma’.

On the one hand, they are imitating their male counterparts in drinking to excess; yet if they get it ‘wrong’ it undermines their highly groomed, highly sexualised, high-heeled femininity while facing censure from both men and women alike.

Of course, for the Government and its State apparatus, the problems of excess are framed as problems of consumption. The inability of drinkers, young or old, to self-regulate their own behaviours, is seen as a sign of moral failure. But self-regulation or governing oneself to act rationally to ensure the right choices are made, is doomed to fail in this context for two reasons. First, getting drunk means that people’s rational faculties are switched off, albeit temporarily. How often have you woken up in the morning and said to yourself “I’m not doing that again” only to do precisely that the next week? And second, people are unlikely to make rational choices when confronted with excess.

Excess is not only a problem of consumption but also a problem of production. Excess that is produced has to go somewhere. And increasingly, it seems, it’s going into our bodies.

What’s required if Government really wants to address excess drinking, rather than pandering to their chums in the alcohol lobby and industry, is not more information to help consumers make better decisions about how much they should or shouldn’t drink, but more regulation over the production of alcohol.

This is, however, as unlikely as it is undesirable. Governments say that they don’t like intervening in markets, although they do it all the time. Moreover, ‘we’ don’t want to live in a Nanny State, where politicians and their Whitehall mandarins, tell us what we can and cannot do.

But of course, with other psychoactive substances this is exactly what Governments do; they legislate or regulate supply and even try and eradicate production in an attempt to stem consumption.

Perhaps its time to accept that in an economy of excess, bingeing is simply what people will inevitably do.

Binge-drinkers will remain, for some, drunken delinquents; but they are also productively delinquent in enacting the much cherished principle of the market economy.