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This report examines the seriousness of the "binge drinking culture" and whether it is a social problem that needs addressing.
Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as "a "binge" is a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 gram percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks (male), or 4 or more drinks (female), in about two hours. Binge drinking is clearly dangerous for the drinker and society" (NIAAA Newsletter, 2004).
As previous research has shown this definition does not reflect the views of society as a whole. Particularly among the younger generation, notably college and university students whose definition of binge drinking varies from person to person and depends upon how much they drink. This can range from anything between six drinks for men and five for women, up to 10 or more drinks for men (Wechsler and Kuo, 2000).
It is clear that there is confusion about what is classed as binge drinking but does the problem lie solely within the lack of knowledge and understanding. This report details the seriousness of the problem in terms of medical, economic and legal consequences and goes on to compare the current binge drinking culture to past attitudes towards drinking. This report finishes with an analysis of this research and how effective current laws and media campaigns are in managing binge drinking.
Consequences of binge drinking
In Britain alone it is estimated that binge drinking costs the country over £20 billion a year. This figure includes £7.3 billion spent on alcohol related crime and another £4.7 billion on the human and emotional cost of these crimes. The cost to employers per year is £6.4 billion, incurred from over 17 million working days lost due to drink-related illnesses and hangovers (BBC News, 2003). This problem can be seen throughout the world with an ever increasing number of countries having to tackle similar issues.
The serious consequences of binge drinking in relation to health are becoming increasingly more noticeable. Every year in Britain there are around 150,000 hospital admissions resulting from alcohol-related illnesses and accidents and between 15,000 and 22,000 people die due to alcohol misuse (Bolland, 2008).
The short term health effects of binge drinking although in many cases mild can sometimes be far more serious and as a result end in death. This is due to the fact that "drinking very large amounts of alcohol suppresses activity in the areas of your brain that control breathing and levels of consciousness" which can result in you passing out or going into a coma (Bupa, 2008).
There are a wide range of medical problems associated with binge drinking these include but are not limited to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, gastritis and pancreatitis, pregnancy complications, brain damage, fertility problems and impotence (Bupa, 2008). The annual cost to the NHS due to alcohol-related illnesses is in the region of £1.7 billion (BBC News, 2003). This amount will surely continue to increase as the health problems caused by binge drinking early on in life become more apparent with age.
The long term health effects of continued alcohol misuse into middle age can result in a number of far more serious problems later in life including cirrhosis of the liver, mental illness and certain forms of cancer to name a few (Bupa 2008). There are two specific forms of cancer particularly related to binge drinking, these are breast cancer and oral cancer (ias, 2007). New research shows that around 4 million women drinkers significantly increase their risk of breast cancer through binge drinking, yet 82% of all women are totally unaware of the link between alcohol and breast cancer (Healthpulse.co.uk, 2008).
In Britain alcohol-related crime amounts to half of all violent crimes committed, with around 1 in 3 incidents of domestic violence being linked to alcohol misuse. This amounts to around 360,000 cases (Department of Health, 2004, in Tudhope 2006).
Alcohol-related crime affects many different people including the perpetrators themselves through the consequences of drink driving. These consequences can include a 12 month driving ban, criminal record, hefty fine and several lifestyle changes i.e. potential loss of job, relationships or car (THINK!, 2007).
Taking into account all of the problems related to alcohol misuse is it surprising to find that alcohol services are currently underfunded. Only £95 million is spent each year on alcohol services compared to £500 million for drugs, even though recent figures show there are over 5,000 deaths directly related to alcohol each year compared to just over 1,000 directly related to drugs (Guardian, 2004, in Donnellan 2005).
There are strict laws in place in the United Kingdom with regard to drinking. Yet these laws appear to be doing very little to control the ever increasing problem of binge drinking.
Although binge drinking may appear to be a relatively new concept Borsay (2007) suggests that there are many parallels between the 'Gin Crisis' of early-eighteenth-century England and the modern phenomenon of binge drinking today.
Many attempts have been made over the years to try and control problems associated with alcohol. The first licensing laws date back to 1552 (Kirby, 2009) and the Licensing Act 1872 was introduced to set out various regulations and offences relating to alcohol. One of its aims was to control the closing time of public houses (Bloy, 2006). The Licensing Act has been changed many times over the years and is still in force today.
One of the most significant changes of recent time was made in the Licensing Act 2003 which came into force in November 2005. The introduction of 24 hour licensing was intended to tackle the issue of binge drinking but it only appears to have intensified the problem. As a result there has been a dramatic increase in the number of overnight alcohol-related visits to emergency care (bjhc&im, 2007).
Another change that has been seen over the years is an increase in women drinking to excess, which has almost doubled in the past decade. A reason for this change could be that women are becoming more independent and financially secure and as a result following in the footsteps of their male counterparts (Hall, 2006).
Certain aspects of the problems related to drinking appear to have improved over time. Accidents resulting from drink driving have decreased dramatically over the past 30 years, with death and serious injuries having fallen by three-quarters since 1980 (Drinkaware.co.uk, 2009).
This report confirms binge drinking is a problem and whilst we have seen some signs of improvement with regard to drink driving there are still many other issues yet to be addressed.
A new initiative currently being introduced to try and tackle the problem of binge drinking is a 5 year £100m social marketing campaign with the theme 'Why Let Good Times Go Bad'. Its aim is to educate 18-24 year olds on the effects of alcohol misuse (Metro.co.uk, 2009). However as we have seen over the past few years many similar campaigns appear to have had little or no impact whatsoever.
One reason for this could be the fact that people simply do not want to change. A recent survey highlighted this problem stating that although "public health advertising has succeeded in making people better informed about the dangers of binge drinking, it has not changed their behaviour" (Carvel, 2009).
Not all campaigns have been aimed at the consequences on the binge drinkers themselves. One such nationwide advertising campaign launched in 2007 suitably named 'Had Enough' shows the impact drunken behaviour has on society as a whole and the amount of innocent people's lives it affects (Language, 2009). Although this advertising campaign highlights the problem it is addressing, it is not necessarily getting the message across to the vast majority of individuals it is targeted at, as more often than not the offenders themselves don't feel it relates to them.
There are two further initiatives currently been introduced the first is an attempt by retailers to promote low-alcohol wine, as the latest research shows that British drinkers are drinking more units now than just under 10 years ago due to extra strong lagers and high-alcohol wines been more readily available (Smithers, 2009). The second is a recently proposed mandatory code for alcohol promotions including all-you-can-drink deals for a fixed price, which could result in nightclubs and bars losing their licences (The Independent, 2009).
The research material used in this report has been invaluable in highlighting the seriousness of the 'binge drinking culture'. The Bupa and Healthpulse.co.uk websites, ias factsheet, and journal article by Bolland were valid and useful in describing the consequences of binge drinking in relation to health, whilst the BBC News article gave supporting evidence with regard to economic consequences. There were a limited number of books available on the subject of binge drinking and the two used, although valid and useful in this discussion only brought together research from other sources. The vast majority of newspaper articles used were valid and useful in confirming what is been done to try and tackle the problem of binge drinking, whilst Carvels report highlighted the fact that people do not want to change.
This report clearly shows that the 'binge drinking culture' is a very serious problem, one which must be dealt with sooner rather than later before the problems associated with binge drinking become irreversible. It also shows that it is a very serious social problem that needs addressing and whilst attempts have been made to tackle the issues surrounding it there is still a lot to be done.
Our children need to be properly educated in this area and tougher laws need to be put in place. Further funding needs to be available to treat problems that already exist as a result of alcohol misuse.
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