Insight: Booze and you lose - the new mantra for Scottish teens

A reveller lies on a bench after leaving a bar. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty
A reveller lies on a bench after leaving a bar. Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty
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When Susan and Brendan McFadyens’ three sons were still quite young, the couple took an unusual decision. Inspired by friends in Ireland, they decided to offer each of their boys a lump sum if they could make it to their 18th birthdays without consuming any alcohol.

The logic for this was impeccable: not only would the money be a powerful motivating factor to stay sober – and research shows every extra year of not drinking makes a difference to young people’s health – but it would give them a valid excuse to offer up to friends putting pressure on them to succumb.

Elise Cochrane, 19, who made the decision never to drink at the age of nine. Picture: John Devlin

Elise Cochrane, 19, who made the decision never to drink at the age of nine. Picture: John Devlin

The two older boys, Chris and Tony, have already made the target, marking the achievement with a rite-of-passage pint with their father. The youngest, Andrew, 12, seems committed to following in his brothers’ footsteps.

Chris, now 23 and an assistant teacher at a secondary school, was so keen to reach the goal he survived a sixth-year holiday to Magaluf without surrendering to the siren call of the infamous goldfish bowls full of red and green cocktails.

A keen footballer, Chris says he noticed the difference between his fitness levels and the fitness levels of his peers who took alcohol. “When I went to [Stirling] University I was so much fitter, probably because I hadn’t drunk for five or six years, so I ended up playing for East Stirling. Before that, when I played for an under-19s team, I noticed some of the boys had beer bellies – I was looking at them and thinking: ‘How can that be?’ They must have been drinking since they were 13.”

Though he does now drink socially, there is, he says, another dividend from his years of abstinence: he can – when he wants – enjoy a night out without alcohol. “I don’t feel I need to drink to have a good time like some of my 
friends do.”

Havana Sillars, 17, doesn't drink because she can't be bothered with the hassle. PIcture: John Devlin

Havana Sillars, 17, doesn't drink because she can't be bothered with the hassle. PIcture: John Devlin

The McFadyens’ approach is unusual, and many parents would not be able to afford to offer their children a cash incentive. But a recent World Health Organisation report – based on research led by the University of St Andrews – has found drinking amongst young teenagers in Scotland has declined dramatically in the last 16 years.

According to the study of 36 European countries, weekly drinking among 15-year-olds dropped from 41 per cent to 11 per cent in girls and from 41 per cent to 14 per cent among boys between 2002 and 2014. Consumption of spirits by girls in Scotland also dropped significantly from 37 per cent to 7 per cent.

Jo Inchley, senior research fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews, said overall the decreases were highest in those countries that traditionally had the highest prevalence, such as the UK and Nordic countries.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, believes the new study is positive even if the 15-year-olds go on to drink when they turn 18.

“There’s evidence that the earlier you start drinking the more severe the consequences,” she says. “For every year you delay initiating drinking you reduce the risk of alcohol dependency by 14 per cent.”

“Also, there is evidence that if you start at age 12, then at age 20-22 you are more likely to have been arrested and more likely to have a drink and drug problem compared with those who started at 14, and so on, so I think it’s good news that young people are starting later.”

Better still, it does not appear that one vice is replacing another. According to the Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle Substance Use Survey (SALSUS) the consumption of tobacco and illicit drugs is following a similar downward trend.

No-one is sure yet what is driving the decline, which is being replicated across the western world. The Wellcome Trust has given Sheffield University funding to investigate the phenomenon. Its initial report published last week suggested a range of possible factors including: immigration from non-drinking cultures, shifts in parenting styles, the rise of internet-based technologies, changing norms around drinking and improved enforcement of underage sales restrictions.

“One of the hypotheses is that it’s harder for young people to buy alcohol these days and I’m sure with Challenge 25 [the policy that encourages retailers to check the ID of anyone who looks under 25] and a bit more scrutiny of licensed premises, they probably are being a bit more thorough,” says Douglas.

“But the evidence from SALSUS suggests that the majority of young people who are getting hold of alcohol are getting it from the home or from relatives. So, I do think there is something more profound going on here. Children and young people are socialising in a different way – they are much more social media-focused; they are more likely to be on their devices rather than down the park or hanging out at the bus stops.”

In Scotland, they may also be affected by the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing policy, which has pushed up the price of cheaper alcohol such as Frosty Jack cider. But since the policy was only introduced in May, there is, as yet, no information on whether or not it is reducing consumption.

I have had a mixed experience with my own three sons. The oldest didn’t drink at all until he was just shy of 18. Looking back, he says he didn’t like the taste and was scared of how it might affect him. The second didn’t drink at 15, but was drunk to the point of throwing up at 16 (at a party where he consumed someone else’s vodka). At 18, he is a footballer and disciplined about not drinking before training and games. The youngest is 14 and doesn’t drink (but quite possibly would if he thought he’d get away with it). All of them played a fair bit on the Xbox, but whether this was the reason they didn’t drink, or an escape from tricky social situations where they might feel obliged to drink, is difficult to assess.

Elise Cochrane, 19, made the decision never to drink at the age of nine after witnessing the destructive power of alcohol. “My nana was an alcoholic and over the years I saw the damage it did to everyone in my family,” she says. “It caused so much misery, I wouldn’t have wanted to touch the stuff. By the time she died [of alcohol-related conditions] my nana had pretty much alienated herself from the family because we had all tried for a really long time to get her to stop. I found it quite difficult when my friends drank because I had seen the bad side of alcohol. It made me worry to see them not take it seriously; to hear them talking about going and getting drunk. It brought back bad memories for me. Many of them thought it was funny and treated it as a joke, because, presumably, they hadn’t had the same experiences.”

Seventeen-year-old Havana Sillars doesn’t drink because she can’t be bothered with the hassle. “Obviously you can’t buy alcohol at my age so there is the whole issue of ‘what happens if we get caught?’ And I don’t really like the taste. Sometimes my mum will offer me something and I will take it and think: ‘This is not nice.’”

Other abstemious teenagers I spoke to were motivated by not wanting to lose control or put themselves in danger. James Ross is 15 and sings with a band, but despite the rock and roll stereotype, none of his bandmates drink; they would all rather focus on their music.

“A few of my friends drink, but I don’t because, first of all, my parents would definitely find out and I don’t want to get into trouble.

“But also when I have been out and some of my friends have had a drink they aren’t in control of their own actions. They don’t seem properly aware of what’s going on and I feel like more of a babysitter than a friend.

“I have one friend who was out drinking and the group got attacked and my friend had to go to hospital with his injuries. He couldn’t defend himself. Obviously, I don’t want that to happen to me.”

James, who is in fourth year and preparing for his National 5s, is also concerned about the impact drinking might have on his schoolwork. “We have talks in PSE [Personal and Social Education] on how alcohol affects your brain’s development. There’s just no real positive outcome from drinking at my age.”

Of course, in the teenage years there can be peer pressure to drink (or at least to look as if you’re drinking). “If my friends are drinking they will say, ‘Do you want some,’ and I will say, ‘No.’ But I admit sometimes it can be tempting,” James admits. “You think, ‘It’s just a sip, no-one is going to notice,’ but once you have a sip you may as well have drunk a whole bottle. That’s not to say any of my friends bully me, but there is some sort of pressure there.”

For a growing number of young Scots, then, getting drunk is not as fundamental a part of growing up as it was a generation or so ago. Yet Douglas cautions against becoming complacent.

Although the survey showed a steady decline in the drinking of 15-year-olds, it found a third had been drunk twice or more in their lifetime. This figure was down from around 50 per cent in 2002, but still placed Scotland in the top 10 in Europe. More than a quarter of girls in Scotland (27 per cent) and almost a third of boys (30 per cent) started drinking alcohol at 13 or younger.

In addition, according to the Scottish Health Survey, 27 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 24 are drinking more than the recommended 14 units a week (a category classed as hazardous and harmful). “That’s people who are potentially putting their health at risk,” says Douglas. “That proportion is quite high – higher than most other age groups apart from the 45 to 54-year-olds and the 55 to 64-year-olds where the figures are 28 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.

“The thing is with young people, you have the risks of violence, accidents, unprotected sex, unplanned pregnancies and suicide, particularly among young men,” says Douglas. “We have also developed a greater understanding around the neuro-physiological effects. The brain is still developing and doing some really crucial wiring up in the teenage years, so there is a risk of temporary and permanent cognitive impairment, particularly if they are drinking heavily over a sustained period.”

Douglas believes we need to be alert to potential changes in the way alcohol is being promoted. As drinking among young people declines, it is likely the industry will shift more and more of its marketing into the online spaces they frequent in order to lure them back.

The industry will also be trying to come up with millennial-friendly products to keep the money rolling in. Alcopops – which appeal to beginners – were a direct response to a decline in profits in the 90s when young people started using Ecstasy instead of alcohol.

“My fear would be: where will the industry be going next in terms of maintaining their market?” says Douglas. “There’s some evidence of a shift into drinks that imply greater purity or have fruit on the label. There’s a Smirnoff advert that involves smashing fruit, Absolut Vodka has a wide range of different fruit flavours. And then you see the advent of skinny lagers which are low in carbs and calories, gluten free, vegan-friendly. That to me is clearly making a play for millennial women.”

Another teenage phenomenon is Dragon Soop – which combines vodka with caffeine – and is marketed in cans similar to hi-energy soft drinks such as Relentless. One of the astonishing things about Dragon Soop – beyond its lurid, carpet-staining colour – is that each 500ml can contains four units. The fact it contains four units is clearly marked so you can “Drink Aware”, but for many young people this serves more as a boast than a warning.

“I think if you are in the business of creating alcohol products and trying to sell those products you will be adapting to the changing wishes of consumers. If we are lucky that will mean lower and no alcohol products; if we are unlucky it will mean whatever appeals to Generation Y,” says Douglas.

Increasingly, however, it seems Generation Y is losing its lust for liquor. Take Ciaran McAndrew. At 17, he doesn’t drink partly because he doesn’t like it and partly because he plays under-18s football with Hamilton Academical FC.

“When I go to parties, I try to focus on other things. For example, I like music so I will take charge of that or I will chat with people I don’t see often. I find other ways to get round it,” he says. “I quite like not drinking because I can get my pals home safe. I like knowing they are all right.”

Like many young men of his age, Ciaran is looking forward to a trip to Zante when school finishes in June, but he has no interest in getting slaughtered on the strip and collapsing on a sun lounger at dawn.

“It will be a different experience for me, for sure, but I am buzzing for it,” he says. “I enjoy myself better not going out and getting steaming. The others will be lying in their beds until the afternoon and I will be out on the beach.”