Lesley Riddoch: Life without drink easy to swallow

Figures from ONS reveal a significant proportion of 16-24-year-olds do not drink alcohol. Picture: Getty

Figures from ONS reveal a significant proportion of 16-24-year-olds do not drink alcohol. Picture: Getty

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Young people are turning from booze and there is a chance to imagine a society not built about alcohol, writes Lesley Riddoch

It seems Scotland has acquired a new youth slogan – “You don’t huv tae drink.” According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 21 per cent of Scots are teetotallers. Many of them are abstemious 16-to-24-year-olds. Some 27 per cent of that age group were non-drinkers in 2013 compared with 19 per cent in 2005 and youngsters who do drink seem to be consuming less.

ONS say that overall falls in drinking during 2013 were “a result of changes among younger adults, with little or no change in older groups.”

Admittedly 16-to-24-year-old Scots are more likely to binge if they do drink – reflecting the pattern amongst adults. Scots still binge-drink more than anywhere else in the UK, apart from the north-east of England, and have the highest risk of alcohol-related death.

But Scotland was also the only nation with significantly lower rates of drinking now than a decade ago.

Something is happening – have Scottish youngsters become smarter around drink than their elders?

Certainly, teenagers are spending more time alone in their rooms on their PlayStations and computers than hanging round street corners, as earlier generations did. The growing immigrant population has an effect – many are young Muslims who do not drink. The ban on multi-buy supermarket deals has made alcohol more expensive, so some twenty some-things have turned to legal highs. Indeed a new report suggests students are using “smart drugs” – not for escape but to aid concentration and good exam results so they can avoid becoming the next batch of jobless graduates.

Evidently, austerity is restraining youthful excess. Young adults have borne the brunt of Britain’s economic collapse and stagnation. As one blogger put it: “In 2005 you came out of school/uni into a decent job, got your own place and lived for the weekend before settling down. Now you come out, move back in with your parents and get a 20-hour contract in a call centre, with an extra job working nights in a bar if you’re lucky. Going out every weekend becomes going out once a month.”

That’s true. But it doesn’t quite explain why one in five youngsters is opting not to drink at all. Of course folk under-record the amount of alcohol they consume. But why would any twenty year-old claim to be absolutely tee-total unless they are – it is such an uncool, almost unacceptably boring lifestyle statement for a youngster to make.

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Perhaps something really has changed.

A December 2014 report by NHS Health Scotland said alcohol sales generally are down 9 per cent since their 2009 peak. That’s nine million fewer bottles of wine, three million fewer bottles of spirits or 38 million fewer pints of beer per year. There were also a third fewer alcohol-related deaths and 25 per cent fewer alcohol related hospital admissions.

Since the picture seems to be changing, some politicians are keen to ditch the “whole population” approach adopted by the Scottish Government which aims to reduce the availability of cheap alcohol everywhere and for everyone.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy wants to turn the clock back by selling alcohol in football grounds to ordinary fans. David Cameron wants to isolate and demonise uncooperative “problem drinkers” by withholding benefits if they refuse treatment. Former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, who had a battle with booze, described this latter proposal as a “stupid little stunt.” Indeed it is.

But now that there are signs of a tiny improvement in our national obsession with alcohol, there will be more populist moves to relax the rules.

Au contraire. This is the time for Scotland to capitalise on good news and re-imagine our social lives without alcohol as its raison d’etre or centrepiece. As a woman who’s been “off the sauce” for 15 years I can testify that Scotland hardly caters for non-drinkers. Indeed whether, how much and what people drink still seem to be defining features of their personalities. What people do with their precious leisure time is not. That’s tedious beyond belief so maybe young abstemious people are simply voting with their feet. Scotland’s licensed trade body wants the government to help prevent mass pub closures because bar alcohol sales have plunged by 60 per cent since strict new drink-drive limits were introduced. But why should we?

People certainly need places to meet – but those places doesn’t have to be alcohol-centric, male drinking dens with a few warm bottles of Kalibers and a jar of Nescafe on the shelf for the strait-laced, the odd and the women.

Communities must have centre points – but if the price of keeping locals open is faithfully propping up the bar every night, pubs will surely disappear. It’s time for a change of attitude to excise the forbidding “though shalt not enter” atmosphere of many old-style hostelries, a change in ownership to ease the grip of faceless, big brewery control and a change in the law to let the whole family in – including kids.

The community of Tweedsmuir in the Borders is attempting just this after buying the strategically placed Crook Inn – they are now consulting on the business case to create a very different type of community inn.

The chain of Swedish café/bars in Edinburgh – Hemma, Joe Pearce’s and Sofi’s – have areas reserved for mothers and prams during the day and family activities including jogging from the cafe bars in the early evening. According to owner Anna Christophersen her premises held 760 social events in the last year including clothes swaps, knitting nights, book clubs and cult film nights. Of course, not everyone was drinking cranberry juice but drinking to get drunk would “not feel right”. In West Wemyss in Fife, the community runs a bar, cafe and heritage centre – all separate premises are located in the same restored building and staffed by volunteers from the village. Thanks to its location on the Fife Coastal Path the café is probably more popular than the pub.

This is the new Scotland.

Isolation and loneliness are widespread. Older women barely leave the house, twenty per cent of people work from home, younger women have spending power and coffee bars make more per customer than pubs. Society needs a new kind of public house – a warm, inviting, woman-friendly, active, multi-functional and genuinely inclusive place, free from the boozy stigma of centuries past.

Can we deliver?

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