Booze And Drug Trends In Britain - All Change?

Booze And Drug Trends In Britain - All Change?

5 May 2019

It’s fair to say us Brits have a love/hate relationship with alcohol. At its best, booze fuels legendary nights out and without it, how many spontaneous romances would remain unkindled; friendships unfounded and regrets unregretted?

The effects of alcohol have helped Brits find love and earn criminal records in spectacular numbers.

But shenanigans aside, our national relationship with the sauce is changing.

Youngsters today are simply less concerned with alcohol than in days gone by. It’s true, Gen Z is quantifiably less booze-enthused than the Baby Boomers, Gen Y and millennials. Let’s look.

In 1950, Brits were drinking about 3.9 litres of pure alcohol per person (as the volume is historically measured). Since this time, and without exception, drinking has continuously escalated in the UK, curving spectacularly in the 90s and the onset of Britpop, ladette culture, mainstream clubbing and reduced alcohol pricing.

This cocktail of factors paved the way for a decade-long spike in excessive-drinking figures, which crescendoed in 2004. At that time Brits were downing an average of 9.5 litres of pure alcohol per year – the equivalent of over 100 bottles of wine each. Horrifying.

Fast forward to 2019, and we can see a dramatic and sustained drop in this culture of excess. Abstention has firmly planted itself in Great Britain circa 2019 and 21% of Brits currently class themselves as teetotal, compared to 15% in 2009 and just 10% in 1998.

The rise of the non-drinkers is most obvious within the Gen Z demographic. A study by University College London found that the proportion of 16 to 24 year olds who don’t drink alcohol at all increased from 18% to 29% in the ten years to 2015.

Of course there’s still youngsters who enjoy the occasional snifter, but not many. According to World Health Organization data, just 10% of English teenagers (16-19) drank alcohol weekly in 2014, down from around 50% in 2002. In 2015, 28% of 16-24 year olds admitted to drinking above recommended limits at least once in the year. In 2005 it was over 40%.

So why the downturn? Well when considering the younger generation’s experience, it’s not difficult to hazard a guess as to why a once-ubiquitous hobby is falling out of favour …

Greater awareness of the health impacts? Sure.

A raft of high-profile abstainers influencing younger generations through social media? Check.

The growth of individualism and the rise of the middle-finger to peer pressure? Perhaps.

Each of the above have been cited as a motivation behind Gen Z binning the bottle, along with myriad other catalysts which mostly centre in social media.

One such theory is drawn from the modern phenomenon of “isolated socialising,” where the bonds of friendships can be forged and cemented without the need to physically meet with pals over a beer or a glass of wine.

It’s unsurprising that this type of ‘socialising’ defines a generation which has grown up with a screen in the face, buds in the ears and a livestream link to the world outside. Being simultaneously connected to everyone and no one is perhaps rendering the notion of meeting down the pub or a big night out less and less relevant.

A recent survey by the Observer tried to gauge how the 16-24 age bracket regarded the notion of ‘going out’ for a drink. “A lot of effort, boring, repetitive and expensive,” came the feedback.

Indeed, many of those surveyed identified a lack of financial security as a significant barrier to boozing. Plenty of respondents said the idea of spending precious money on ‘another over-priced pint’ was ‘dread-inducing’ - so not a prudent way to spank hard-earned cash.

Another aspect of social media which is undoubtedly affecting the alcohol stats is the fear of being caught on video. With everything the younger generations do captured in some form, all are aware that getting caught wasted on camera isn't a good look. There’s a real fear that overdoing it will end up on Instagram or Snapchat. And no one needs that sort of press.

Speaking of which, a nascent culture of drink and drug shaming in the media is nigh. We’ve all seen videos online of the less-than-glamorous drunken slip-ups. It seems Gen Zedders are more concerned with maintaining a carefully cultivated online image than allowing one night of excess to ruin years of hard work.

Of course, we can’t credit social media exclusively for the significant decline in drinking figures. The trend of non-drinking among young people may also mirror an increase in abstainers within the adult population – and this is in part related to a rise in ethnic diversity. For example, large proportions of people from the Muslim and Hindu faiths don’t drink.

Also interesting to note is that 2016 - for the first time in recorded history - UK men and women were drinking alcohol equally. But that’s another article all together.

A recent Guardian piece theorises that the drop in youth boozing is counterweighted with a rise in drug taking. And figures show there’s some truth to this.

In a 2018 report on drug misuse, the Home Office found that while just 1 in 23 adults aged 16 to 59 had taken recreational drugs in the last month, the figure for 16 to 24 year olds specifically was one in ten. That said, in 2008 12.5% of 16 to 24 year olds admitted monthly drug taking, so we have dropped by some 3%.

But before we start waving flags, segmenting by drug-classifications offers a more troubling picture. Home Office statistics from July 2018 reveal that 8.4% of UK 16 to 24-year-olds have used Class A drugs in the last year - a 12 year high.

In the last five years, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds using cocaine has doubled, from 3% in 2012/13 to 6% in 2017/18. Between 2016 and 2017, ketamine use tripled among the same age bracket.

New NHS data notes that general youth drug-taking is on the rise: one in four teens admitting to taking drugs “at some point” in the year, versus one in seven in 2014.

Many millennials - the oldest of whom are now in their mid-to-late thirties - grew up when cannabis was in. But today’s data shows that only one in ten 16-34-year olds have toked in the past year, a massive decline on 1998 when more than one in four were spliffing regularly.

In 2019, teen Cannabis use is the lowest it has been since records began. Perhaps the stereotype of passing a joint around the circle of friends no longer applies given youngsters have are disinclined to physically gather in the same space.

It’s a mixed picture in drugs. Overall it’s trending down and cannabis is seemingly on the outs. Big tick. But then Class As and party drugs are doubling and tripling according to the government’s own figures.

One reason for the run on drugs is availability. Drugs are far more widely available now than ever before, especially if you know how to use the deep web. They don’t cost very much either. Cocaine prices are said to be half what they were even five years ago. The scary thing about drugs, especially in cities, is not just the availability but the speed of delivery. For the generation that craves instant-everything, apparently that means drugs too. News reports suggest it’s faster to get a small package delivered to your door than it is a takeaway pizza.

With the rise of social media, and the ability to connect to anyone at any time, this theoretically means that anything can be purchased peer-to-peer at virtually any time - drugs too. There’s also the perception of drugs. Public information and official messaging around chemicals are being challenged by many more people on many more forums. Instead of blindly following orders, youngsters are able to easily seek their own info and ask real questions of an anti-drug mandate that feels several lifetimes too old.


To sum up where we are now, drinking isn’t cool. If you’re teens or mid twenties. New social (media) pressures means game-face at all times.

There’s less need to be in the same room as your friends thus less need to grease the wheels of friendship over a drink or six. Plus going out’s a poor way to spend hard-earned cash and the results of drunkenness can cost much more in social status.

However, if social media et al is impacting booze trends for the better, you might say it’s doing the opposite for drug use. Rather than stigmatising use, the connected life is instead facilitating.

Drinking mightn’t be en-vogue, but recreational drug-use is. Though cannabis is at an all-time low, Class A use is rising sharply for teens and twenties.

Brits can still take some comfort in knowing that the number of teenagers using illegal drugs has halved since 2001 so it remains to be seen if trends will taper off. Gen Z is challenging the foundations of boozy Britain so maybe their chemical romance will soon go the way of the alcopop.


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