Thursday, May 27, 2010

Finally, Some Good News from Britain!

(NOTE: This blog is from a primarily American perspective)

The United Kingdom (which happens to be America's mother country) has had a long history of binge drinking.  By long, we mean nearly a thousand years.  And by binge drinking, we mean drinking to not only get drunk (or "pissed" as they like to say), but to fall down.

The British drinking culture, which was the main influence on its former colonies around the world, has generally ebbed and flowed along with the zeitgeist.  For a variety of reasons, binge drinking and alcohol consumption in general has increased dramatically over the past few decades (especially the 1990s) among both teenagers and adults alike.  Most notable among those reasons was the steadily falling price of booze relative to personal income since the 1960s, the rising number and density of alcohol outlets, and the practice of "loss leading" promotions by these outlets.  Since around 2000, the news media (especially the tabloids) have been hawking scare stories on a regular basis about the country's apparently worsening drinking problem, especially stories about young people.  Of course, we all know that good news doesn't sell nearly as well as bad or frighening news.

However, it appears that things are actually changing for the better, at least among young people.  Since about 2003, teen drinking in England is down significantly, especially among 11-15 year olds.  This appears to be driven in part by fewer people under 18 buying their own alcohol directly, which is likely a result of tougher enforcement of Britain's long-standing drinking age of 18.  By tougher we mean that enforcement went from practically nonexistent to quite significant, though the age limit is still less enforced than America's 21 drinking age and there are numerous exceptions to the UK limit.  Think of it like the way we treat cigarettes in the USA.  Also, 16-24 year olds are drinking less frequently and less heavily in 2008 than they were in 1996.  Unfortunately, however, there has been little to no progress overall among adults over 25 for some reason, and alcohol-related deaths (mostly liver disease, which has a lag time of many years) remain higher than in the 1990s.  Though that may change as the current cohort of teens and young adults ages in the future.

In addition, the British Crime Survey shows that violent crime has generally declined since the 1990s as well, including crimes committed by offenders perceived by victims as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Suicides have dropped as well.  This trend is unlikely due to tougher gun control laws passed in the 1990s--the use of guns in crimes has actually risen since 1998 despite overall violent crime falling.  It also calls into question the conventional wisdom that the 24-hour extended drinking laws (effective 2005) have ushered in disaster on the streets of England.

Most notably of all, this occurred without raising the drinking age to 21, as some people in the UK had suggested doing.  Right-o, old chap?

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