The taxing question of alcohol

"The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is asking the Treasury to raise the tax on alcopops and other alcoholic drinks favoured by teenagers to price them beyond the reach of young people's earnings or pocket money. Ms Hewitt said there was a real problem of binge drinking among young people which resulted in them 'ending up in the casualty department of hospitals because they are drunk'. However, the Treasury said that her idea was 'not a runner' and pointed out that after a decision in the 2002 budget, alcopops were now taxed at the same rate as spirits."

[Thanks to the PSHE-network mailing c/o NCB for this information]

There is no doubt that alcohol, our favourite drug, is a huge source of health and social problems, far more, it seems than any illegal drug, and probably more than all the illegal drugs put together. However, most of the consumption of alcohol is done by adults and that's where most of the problems are. So, anyone who is especially worried about alcohol intake by school children may be missing the point. Moreover, if children are not shoplifting, they must be given (or sold) alcohol by an adult. So, pointing a finger at young people as usual, leaves three more fingers pointing back at we adults.

While adults, and maybe especially young adults, drink so much, children will want to drink -- and the drinks industry advertises in a way to make drinks seem attractive, fun, and sexy, which is also unlikely to deter our children.

In fact, the alcohol consumption of most school children is modest and mostly done at home. For children who are either drinking heavily and/or outside the home, it is not always obvious that their main problem is drinking -- rather, heavy drinking may be a symptom of something else.

The mention of 'pocket money' by the Secretary of State for Health leads me to think that she does indeed have school-aged pupils in mind, rather than just young adults. What alcoholic drinks are favoured by young people in our studies?

The most popular alcoholic drinks for males and females in Year 10 in 2005 are:
1 Beer/lager
2 Alcopops
3 Spirits

Females :
1 Alcopops
2 Wine
3 Spirits

So, taxing alcopops in particular may just result in a switch to longer- established drinks like beer, wine and spirits.

We have asked about quantities drunk before now. Dividing the number of units consumed by the number of days when drinking was done, the average number of drinks drunk on any one day was 5 units. ['Binge-drinking' is defined as 6 units in a session for women and 8 for men; if the average is 5, we can guess that the range will include some who drink more than the 'binge' levels.]

How much is too much in a week?
The Government no longer guides us by the week, but offers a 2 or 3 units per day as a maximum for women and 3 or 4 units for men; these translate to a conservative weekly total of 14 units for adult women which I thought might also be appropriate for teenagers. In 2005, no more than 5% of young people said they drank more than 14 units in the week before the survey. However, this figure was 13% for the year 10 males.

Do school children get drunk?
According to their own responses, 19% of young people at secondary schools in 2006 said they got drunk in the week previous to the survey. However, bearing in mind the quantities recorded, those who said they got drunk are probably assigning the word 'drunk' to a lesser level of intoxication than we might have in mind from watching programmes about 'boozy Britain' on TV.

Which drinks are favoured by the heaviest drinkers among school children?

The drinks favoured by heavy drinkers may be different. If they said they got drunk at all last week, the favourite drinks among the Year 10 pupils were:

1 Beer/lager
2 Spirits
3 Alcopops

1 Alcopops
2 Spirits
3 Fortified wines e.g. Martini

This suggests that extra tax for alcopops may have an effect on drunkenness among girls, but it seems less likely to have an effect on the boys.

Is price a factor?
There is research at the population level which suggests that the more expensive alcohol is, the less overall is drunk.

At an individual level, we do know (and have previously published) that those young people with higher levels of income -- say, more than £10 per week -- are more likely to drink alcohol, and to drink more alcohol, than young people without so much disposable income. And so, Ms.Hewitt's proposal might well have worked to discourage some young people from drinking so much.

IInsensible drinking?
We have heard a lot about 'sensible drinking', and these days even those very appealing TV adverts from the drinks industry may bear a little tag at the end about drinking responsibly (whatever the message of the previous 30 seconds). [It's not always clear to me what sensible drinking is -- do you have to wear sensible shoes for it? It certainly doesn't sound any fun...]

We have often asked young people, why drink? The single most common response is: 'to get drunk'. This finding puts the idea of promoting sensible drinking in rather a forlorn light. Drinking to get drunk is not to be seen as the exceptional behaviour of an irresponsible minority, but instead the normal behaviour of the majority of young adults who go out to drink. I have seen essentially this point made very recently by Dr Fiona Measham in her study of young adults:

IIn 1988 we published a report, the title of which was 'We teach them how to drink!". Clearly, this is still true.