Middlesex researchers take an in-depth look at how teenagers drink - with some surprising results
From strict Methodists to teetotal Pakistanis, parents who eschew alcohol often share a fear: that their teenage children will fall in with a different crowd and start drinking. But as a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report co-authored by Professor Anthony Goodman reveals, young people's drinking habits are somewhat more complicated than that. Indeed, there is evidence that they not only tend to gravitate towards friendship groups who share their own attitudes towards alcohol, but are not afraid to step in when they think their friends are putting themselves in danger.
Prof Goodman and his Middlesex University team surveyed nearly 700 fourteen and fifteen-year-olds of different ethnicities living in London and urban Berkshire. As you might expect, white respondents were most likely to drink and Muslim girls from an Asian background least likely to do so. Less predictably, bingeing was equally common among boys and girls. The latter were especially likely to binge on spirits. "Perhaps the most surprising finding," says Goodman, the Professor of Criminal and Community Justice Studies at Middlesex and an expert on substance abuse, "was that young people weren't under peer pressure to drink." Respondents who didn't drink said their friends respected their views and didn't try to persuade them to imbibe. As the report concludes, "the findings do not suggest that diverse friendship groups will lead to young people drinking."
There were some indications that young Muslims were not always as teetotal as they claimed. "Very few Muslims reported their own drinking, but some young people reported having Muslim friends, acquaintances and family members who do drink, and at times heavily," says the report. "This secretive drinking reminds me of when heroin was seen as a problem of white males," says Prof Goodman, who warns of the difficulty of tackling alcohol abuse among a group unwilling to admit to it. Peer counsellors rather than adult health workers could be the best way to help young Muslims deal with a drinking problem.
The Rowntree report is one of numerous studies carried out by researchers at Middlesex's Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, which is engaged in an EU-wide project looking at drug consumption. DARC has also helped to standardise the way in which alcohol-related harm is measured across the continent, thereby helping to discover which social policies work and which don't. Another recent Middlesex project examined Polish street drinkers in the UK.
What the Rowntree report makes abundantly clear is that teenagers who want to drink alcohol have no problem getting hold of it, whether through obliging older friends or shopkeepers who sell it illegally to under-18s. Prof Goodman was disappointed when the government decided not to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. "The latest proposal to ban the sale of very cheap alcohol, below cost - which is defined as the duty cost plus VAT - is a minimal response seen by many groups such as the Alcohol Health Alliance as having a negligible impact. Alcohol Concern estimate it will have an impact on 1% of alcohol drinks sold commercially." Along with minimum pricing, he advocates plain packaging.
In some ways, he says, teenagers are a scapegoat for British society's wider addiction to alcohol, with middle-aged and older people drinking more than they did thanks to the affordability of wine. Prof Goodman is no teetotaller, but he is unequivocal about the effects of alcohol: "You have to get them to understand that if you were starting from scratch, we'd have alcohol as a Class A drug."