23 Apr 2014

Is Britain saying goodbye to bingeing culture?

Cardiff University researchers say the rising cost of alcohol plus falling incomes have led to a drop in binge drinking and serious violence. But is Britain saying goodbye to bingeing culture?

Violent crime in the western world has been on a downward trend for years, based on countries’ police figures. But researchers have for the first time analysed data from a third of all emergency departments in England and Wales, and uncovered a significant 12 per cent drop in 2013 compared to 2012.

A Cardiff University report found that more than 32,000 fewer people were treated for injuries relating to violence in England and Wales in that period – 234,09 people in total.

Data from 117 emergency departments, minor-injury units and walk-in centres that are all part of Cardiff University’s National Violence Surveillance Network (NVSN), found that the drop in violence among youth saw the biggest fall.

For young men, there was a 19 per cent drop in those affected. And the report’s author Professor Jonathan Shepherd said a reduction in binge drinking – because of a rise in the cost of booze, and a drop in average incomes – could be behind the fall in violence.

It’s very unfashionable to be that kind of neanderthal man any more Phil Hilton, Shortlist

In the past, a number of reasons have been given for the drop in violence in western society: US researchers have previously said that the introduction of unleaded petrol – and subsequent reduction of the amount of lead we ingest – is behind the drop in murder rates. Others, like Steven Pinker, take the long view. He says that we are gradually evolving to no longer need violence in society, and that it is being eliminated.

But Professor Jonathan Shepherd, lead author of the study and director of the violence and society research group at Cardiff University, is backing a change in alcohol habits since 2008.

“Violence is falling in many western countries and we don’t know all the reasons why,” he said.

But he added: “Binge drinking has become less frequent, and the proportion of youths who don’t drink alcohol at all has risen sharply. Also, after decades in which alcohol has become more affordable, since 2008 it has become less affordable. For people most prone to involvement in violence, those aged 18 to 30, falls in disposable income are probably an important factor.”

‘The ‘laddy’ side of life has really waned’

In the report, the authors say that the real price of alcohol since 2008, in both the on-trade and off-trade, has increased and UK alcohol consumption levels have decreased from 10.8 litres per capita in 2008 to 10 litres per capita in 2011. And the report has been widely welcomed by those who favour government legislated minimum alcohol pricing – a measure the government has so far rejected.

Others have suggested the UK’s culture is changing – something that Tony Blair was trying to do when he relaxed licensing laws in an imitation of our European neighbours, in the hope that later opening hours would lead to a more relaxed attitude to alcohol.

Binge drinking has become less frequent, and the proportion of youths who don’t drink alcohol at all has risen sharply Professor Shepherd

When it comes to young men – the group largely responsible for, and impacted by, violent incidents – Phil Hilton, founder and now editorial director of Shortlist media, told Channel 4 News there has been a “tremendous” change in culture.

“The ‘laddy’ side of life has really waned, especially in cities,” he said. “At least, for guys in jobs, the culture has changed drastically and they no longer want to associated with that traditional maleness… it’s very unfashionable to be that kind of neanderthal man any more.”

And when it comes to booze, he believes, at least among professionals in cities, that men have “become better at drinking”:

“The microbrewery movement is massive, and people now know so much more about wine – our readers are obsessed with wine now. It’s really come away from bolting lots of shots down.”

Regarding attitudes to violence, Mike Hough, professor of criminology at Birkbeck University, told the Times: “I think it is a general cultural shift. I think our standards of behaviour towards each other over a period of 15 years have got better.

“I would not have said this 10 years ago, I would have thought it ‘namby pamby’, but it is hard to find other explanations.”

Men more at risk

However the Cardiff research found that young men aged 18 to 30 are still at the highest risk of violence-related injury, even while violent incidents have dropped for this group.

It also found that violent incidents are still most likely to happen on Saturdays and Sundays (see chart), when the youth of England and Wales are most likely to be found a few drinks up in their local bars, clubs and pubs.

And speaking after the report launch, Prof Shepherd also issued a warning that we may return to bad habits, as we become better off: “As we come out of the downturn and people have more disposable income and are more confident about going out on a Saturday night it is even more important to take action on alcohol prices.

“The last thing we want is to relax the controls, otherwise violence will rise again.”

The Cardiff study confirms data collected in the annual crime survey for England and Wales that violent crime is falling, but the most recent figures for 2013 are due to be published on Thursday.

One violent crime that is bucking the downward trend is domestic violence, which according to the crime survey for England and Wales, is on the up and experienced by nearly a third of all women.

The survey records crime that is not necessarily reported to the police, and could be a reflection of an increase of reporting, rather than incidents.