You're here: Home / Alcohol knowledge centre / Young people and alcohol / Factsheets / The phenomenon of drinking among young people

The phenomenon of drinking among young people

At first glance, official figures on drinking habits indicate that in recent years, while young people have been drinking above the average unit consumption per week, they now drink less than the UK average. Young people also drink fewer times during the week than most other age groups. But when they do drink, a significant proportion engage in heavy episodic or 'binge' drinking. The most notable example of this is among young women; the highest age-specific proportion of female binge drinkers are in the 16 to 24 year-old age bracket.

These current trends are at odds with the wider historical overview of young persons' alcohol consumption in the UK. In the interwar period, they were the lightest drinkers in the adult population and the group most likely to abstain. Nor did alcohol play a significant part in the youth culture that came into existence in the 1950s, this being more likely to involve the coffee bar than the pub. It was not until the 1960s that pubs and drinking became an integral part of the youth scene. By the 1980s, young people had become the heaviest drinkers in the population, and the group least likely to abstain. This has resulted in continuous rises in the number of admissions to hospitals over the past decade, and in the case of females aged between 15 and 34, a doubling in the rate of alcohol-related deaths in the last 20 years.


Health impacts: Hospital admissions

Figure 6 shows an upward trend in admissions to hospitals in England from 2002 to 2010 among young adults. The number of admissions of 15 to 24 year-old male patients over the period increased by 57%, from 18,265 in 2002 to 28,747 in 2010. The number of admissions of 15 to 24 year-old female patients over the period increased at faster rate [76%], from 15,233 in 2002 to 26,908 in 2010.

Figure 6: Number of alcohol-related hospital admissions in England, 15 to 24 years of age, 2002–2010 

Source: North West Public Health Observatory [NWPHO]


Alongside admissions, there are thousands of young adults in England who receive treatment for problems caused by alcohol. The number of new cases of treatment for alcohol misuse among young adults in England in 2011/12 stands at 5,521, 7% of the total number of new cases presented [74,353]. This is lower than last year [5,819], although the number of 18 to 24 year-old female cases in 2011/12 rose slightly over the 12 month period [1,882 in 2010/11 to 1,949 in 2011/12].[1]

Statistics for Scotland focus on the number of alcohol-related discharges rather than admissions (for information on why this is the case, please read the How alcohol mortality and morbidity rates are calculated in the UK section of the Health impacts factsheet). The number of alcohol-related hospital discharges of patients aged between 15 and 24 years in Scotland was lower in 2010/11 [3,312] than in 2006/07 [3,657], peaking at 4,278 in 2007/08 (see Figure 7). There has also been a slight decline in the proportion of discharges in that age group, from a high of 9.9% in 2007/08 to 8.5% 2010/11.

Figure 7: Alcohol-related hospital discharges in Scotland, 15 to 24 years of age, 2006/07 – 2010/11

Source: Alcohol Statistics Scotland, 2007 to 2011


Health impacts: Mortality rates

A significant proportion of avoidable deaths and hospital admissions are attributable to alcohol consumption each year, particularly in young people.[2] A government white paper on public health published in 2010 emphasised the danger of alcohol misuse to young people's lives, stating that accidents due to alcohol (including drink-driving accidents) are the leading cause of death among 16–24 year-olds.[3]

For both sexes, age-specific alcohol-related death rates in the UK were lowest among those younger than 30 years of age. Alcohol-related mortality rates for males and females aged 20 to 24 years were 0.4/0.3 per 100,000 UK population in 2011, and 2.5/1.5 for those aged between 25 and 29 years.

Trend data for the number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK is split by broader age groups than can be strictly described as 'young adults'. The 15 to 34 year-old cohort is the nearest approximation of this.

193 males and 121 females between 15 and 34 years of age died from alcohol-related causes in 2011 in the UK. The number of alcohol-related deaths among females in this age group was at its highest point for at least 20 years in 2011. The mortality rate also increased between 1991 and 2011 for 15 to 34 year-olds, from 1.3 to 2.3/100,000 for males (in line with overall trends), and from 0.7 to 1.4/100,000 for females (double the 1991 figure and above overall trends).[4]


Social impacts

The quantitative data on alcohol-related morbidity and mortality is matched by the literature on young adult drinking habits. This has tended to point to an association between consumption and future increases in alcohol-related harm, with considerable social and financial costs.

Cost of alcohol shapes the frame of reference through which alcohol is consumed. The evidence suggests that cheap alcohol is viewed as a second-rate commodity drunk primarily for its intoxicating effects.[5] One study cited peers and price as the main factors of excessive drinking among 18 to 25 year-olds. Respondents admitted that intoxication was encouraged as the typical mode of alcohol consumption and while rational individual decision-making concerning the short and long-term health and social effects of heavy drinking were actively downplayed, financial considerations were found to have a significant influence on consumption levels. One female student was reported to have said:

Sometimes I go out and get really drunk, especially when it is pound a drink night, because you don't realise how much you are drinking because you are not spending much money, but if you are in a more expensive place, you notice what you drink, because it costs you more.[6]

Many young adults today share this view, as alcohol is perceived as integral to a fun night out. Thus the socialising of young adults has increasingly developed a culture that reinforces the need for drinking to participate and belong.[7] This view is said to develop from an early age, as long-term studies of adolescents' consumption habits into adulthood have established a link between on the onset of drinking and risky patterns of alcohol consumption in later life (for more information on the onset of drinking, please view the Underage drinking in children and adolescents section of the Population groups factsheet).[8]

In contrast, abstainers displayed a high degree of individuality and could often gain a sense of pride from their own resistance to cultural and group norms. To an extent, abstainers were able to continue not drinking, precisely because others chose to. Ultimately, their views support the finding that excessive alcohol use serves an important integrative function within peer groups.[9]

A recent report on young people and drinking made some recommendations for tackling the culture of drinking for drunkenness's sake.[10] These included introducing a minimum price per unit to directly alter the price-sensitive attitude of young people who often drink to excess because alcohol is cheap.

Beyond price, the report's authors identified a list of cultural factors to be addressed in order to change young people's drinking habits (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Beyond price and availability – changing culture 

Source: Seaman, Pete, Ikegwuonu, Theresa (December 2010), Drinking to belong, in 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink', Joseph Rowntree Foundation [JRF]', p. 42


[1]   National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse (October 2012), 'Alcohol Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS), 1st April 2011 – 31st March 2012', p. 20, Table 5.2.1

[2]   Jones, L., Bellis, M. A., Dedman, D., et al (June 2008)., 'Alcohol-attributable Fractions for England: Alcohol-attributable Mortality and Hospital Admissions', Centre for Public Health Faculty of Health and Applied Social Sciences Liverpool John Moores University, page viii

[3]   The Secretary of State for Health (November 2010), 'Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England', p. 19

[4]   ONS (January 2013), 'Alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom, 2011', p. 18

[5]   Seaman, Pete, Ikegwuonu, Theresa (December 2010), Drinking to belong, in 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink', Joseph Rowntree Foundation [JRF]', p. 41

[6]   Seaman, Pete, Ikegwuonu, Theresa, 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink', JRF

[7]   Seaman, Ikegwuonu, 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink', JRF

[8]   Jefferis, B. J. M. H., Power, C., Manor, O (April 2005)., 'Adolescent drinking level and adult binge drinking in a national birth cohort', Addiction, 100: 4, pp. 543–549

[9]   Seaman, Ikegwuonu, Drinking to belong, in 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink', pp. 21–22, 40

[10]   Seaman, Ikegwuonu, 'Young people and alcohol: influences on how they drink'