Binge drinking - think responsibly

Written by Jonathan Birdwell on 10 April 2013 in Opinion
Parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but maybe it’s time it did, says Jonathan Birdwell, arguing that our binge drinking problem begins at home

This article is from the April 2013 issue of Total Politics

The scandal of Britain’s binge drinking-culture continues to make headlines and the government has proposed a minimum unit price on alcohol by way of a solution. Cracks are now forming in the coalition over the policy, with Nick Clegg describing it as “illiberal”. Regardless of whether the policy is liberal or not, it’s a classic technocratic measure to tackle a social problem that assumes price is the key motivator of human behaviour: this is to misunderstand the nature of addiction, or social change itself. The truth is that lasting change begins at home.

Over the past three years, at Demos we have been investigating the influence that parenting style has on a child’s eventual behaviour. From character skills to the likelihood of binge drinking, the evidence is clear. Our research has found that parenting style is one of the most statistically reliable influences on children’s drinking patterns as teenagers and adults. As the government consults on a minimum unit price for alcohol, we argue that a focus on parenting could be more effective.

The equation of effective child caring is actually quite simple: high levels of warmth and affection, combined with consistent enforcement of discipline. This tough love approach leads to the best outcomes for children.

In the latest report, Feeling the Effects, quantitative data from 17,000 people found that parents’ drinking habits have a discernible impact on their childcare style and children’s own future patterns of alcohol intake. Research found the more a parent is seen to drink, the less likely they are to be an effective, ‘tough love’ carer. A mother’s level of intake, in particular, was influential, increasing the likelihood of children drinking excessively as adults.

In interviews with 50 families where at least one parent had a problematic relationship with alcohol, very few described themselves as firm, consistent parents. Instead, they saw themselves as inconsistent emotionally – cold and distant sometimes, cloying and sentimental at other times – and overly permissive. Many spoke about their inability to enforce discipline in a consistent manner, either due to apathy while under the influence of alcohol, or feelings of guilt and hypocrisy in the cold light of sobriety. 

While we are not going so far as to advocate that an actual parenting pamphlet should be dropped through the letterbox, a focus on parenting advice can and should be central to the government’s strategy. The majority of parents would benefit from information awareness campaigns conveying these findings, alongside greater use of Identification and Brief Advice (IBA) interventions by hospitals, GPs and midwives in order to help parents to stop and think about how much they are drinking.

For families in which one or more adult carer is already suffering from an alcohol problem, help needs to be more advanced. A number of family-based support programmes already provide parenting advice and techniques alongside a focus to reduce the parents’ alcohol consumption. This needs to be the case throughout family-focused alcohol support services. Battling an addiction can take years, and in the meantime it’s incredibly important that we reduce the chances of the children of alcoholics going down the same path.

This focus on parenting would be in stark contrast to a minimum unit price. Evidence supporting minimum pricing is mixed, based solely on economic modelling and experiences in other countries with different drinking cultures. While experts agree that it will bring down alcohol consumption overall, precisely how it will impact on different types of drinkers remains unknown. Some evidence suggests that it could have less of an impact on heavy and problematic drinkers, who are less responsive to price and precisely those we want to stop drinking. It is also highly regressive, punishing those on low incomes.

Moreover, alcohol misuse is often connected to other issues that are deeply ingrained and highly complex, such as mental health problems and unemployment. Without tackling these underlying issues, many will continue to feed their addiction, potentially leaving them with less disposable income.

In a liberal society, people should be free to have the odd drink or two, but tackling binge drinking requires encouraging more people to do so responsibly and minimising the number who drink harmfully. A focus on parenting could be the most effective way of creating a population of responsible drinkers.

Tags: Binge drinking, Children, Citizens' programme, Demos, Issue 57

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