Young people turning their backs on alcohol

Wednesday October 10 2018

"Shunning alcohol becomes 'mainstream' among young people as a third are now teetotal," reports The Independent.

A study involving nearly 10,000 young people in the UK found that the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds who say they never drink alcohol rose from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. The study also found that young people who did drink alcohol were drinking less nowadays and that binge drinking rates were falling.

The researchers said the drop in numbers of young people drinking suggested a shift in attitudes towards alcohol. They say this could be due to increased awareness of the health risks of alcohol, as well as changes in the way young people spend their leisure time.

The researchers observed a decrease in drinking in most groups of young people, including those in employment, in education, and with generally healthy lifestyles, and across all income groups.

However, there was no decrease among smokers, some ethnic groups and people with poor mental health. This may indicate a need to reach out with more support to certain groups.

Current UK guidelines advise men and women to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week; equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

Find out about calculating units of alcohol.

Where did the story come from?

The researchers who carried out the study were from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London.

The study was funded by grants from Alliance House Foundation, an organisation that promotes "temperance" or not drinking alcohol. It was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal BMC Public Health and is free to read online.

The story was widely reported. The Telegraph is one of several media outlets that speculated about the reasons for the drop in drinking, suggesting in its headline that "millennials are shunning alcohol" because they think "getting drunk is no longer cool".

But the study didn't actually look into the reasons for the decrease in drinking. More research is needed to investigate the reasons why young people are less likely to drink alcohol.

What kind of research was this?

This was an analysis of repeated cross-sectional surveys of people aged 16 to 24 in England.

The researchers wanted to see how alcohol consumption had changed over time among young people in different subgroups. They also wanted to see how the increase in non-drinking related to the amount of alcohol consumed by those young people who did drink.

Cross-sectional research shows a snapshot of people's behaviour at any one time. Although behaviour can then be linked with factors such as income levels or health habits, we cannot tell from cross-sectional research what causes the behaviour observed. In other words, this study can't tell us what's causing more young people to abstain from drinking.

What did the research involve?

Researchers used data from the Health Survey for England 2005 to 2015, an annual nationwide survey that asks questions about a wide range of health behaviours. For this study, researchers looked only at information from the 9,699 participants aged 16 to 24.

People were asked whether they drank alcohol. If they answered no, they were asked if they had ever consumed alcohol, had previously drunk alcohol or occasionally drank alcohol.

People who said they did drink alcohol were asked if they had done so in the past week, and how many units they had drunk on their heaviest drinking day.

The researchers also looked at:

  • body mass index (BMI)
  • smoking status
  • fruit and vegetable consumption
  • physical activity levels
  • wellbeing and mental health
  • whether the participants had any long-term illness

They looked at the results broken down by:

  • age group (16 to 17 or 18 to 24)
  • gender
  • ethnic background
  • region where participants lived
  • whether they lived in a town, city or village
  • deprivation level of their local area
  • household social class
  • whether they were in full-time education or employed

What were the basic results?

Overall the researchers found that between 2005 and 2015:

  • the numbers of people aged 16 to 24 who described themselves as non-drinkers rose from 18% to 29%
  • the numbers who had never drunk alcohol rose from 9% to 17%
  • the numbers who hadn't had a drink in the last week rose from 35% to 50%
  • the numbers who drank above recommended weekly limits fell from 43% to 28%
  • the numbers who had engaged in binge-drinking fell from 27% to 18%

The increase in non-drinking was seen in most subgroups, including both age groups and genders, north and south of the country, urban and rural areas, deprived and non-deprived areas, and those in and not in education or employment.

The numbers of non-drinkers rose among white young people but not among those from ethnic minorities. However, 68% of young people from ethnic minorities described themselves as non-drinkers in 2015, compared to 20% of white young people.

People with different health behaviours showed some difference in terms of drinking. Non-drinking increased among non-smokers but not among young people who smoked. It also increased among those who did high levels of physical activity, but not those who did less exercise.

This may suggest differences in health awareness, though non-drinking rates did increase in people with low fruit and vegetable consumption and regardless of BMI.

The researchers did not see an increase in non-drinking among people with lower scores of health and mental wellbeing.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said their results "might suggest that the norms around non-drinking are changing, and this behaviour is becoming more mainstream among young people".

They said "increasing rates of non-drinking among young people are to be welcomed" and noted that the decline in drinking "may influence lower average consumption overall, which tends to reduce problematic drinking".

They said it is "difficult to pinpoint a single factor" behind the decline in drinking, but speculated it may be because of stricter licensing laws, increased awareness of the harms of alcohol, and changes in the way young people spend their leisure time – for example, using social media rather than meeting in a pub or bar.

Conclusion

We don't know for sure from this study why young people are increasingly turning away from drinking alcohol. However, the figures suggest a robust trend, which may or may not continue in future.

The decline in drinking could be due to increasing health awareness among young people and people making healthier lifestyle choices. From a public health point of view, this is probably good news, not least because the numbers of young people engaging in harmful binge drinking is also in decline.

The study has some limitations:

  • Some of the subgroups considered were quite small, which means the data for these groups may be less reliable.
  • Although the participants were surveyed every year, not all of the health questions were asked each year. So in some years there's missing data for the amount of exercise people took, the amount of fruit and vegetables they ate, or for their mental health status.
  • Cross-sectional surveys show only a snapshot or series of snapshots in time, so we don't know how the findings relate to changing habits among individuals over time.

Despite the drop in numbers of young people drinking, 28% of young people still reported drinking above recommended levels on at least 1 day in the week they were surveyed, in 2015. The lack of change in drinking habits among young people who smoked was also notable. There are still issues to address and people who may benefit from more support to reduce their alcohol intake.

Current UK guidelines advise men and women to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week; equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

Find out about calculating units of alcohol.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website