Time, please: / is drinking becoming as socially unacceptable as smoking?

Drinking is ingrained in our social life – much as cigarettes were until public health campaigns led to a huge cultural shift. With many young people eschewing alcohol, the beginning of the end of booze Britain is in sight

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More than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal, according to a 2017 study. Photograph: Jutta Klee/Getty Images/fStop

Hannah Jane Parkinson

Mon 23 Apr 2018 08.00 BST Last modified on Mon 23 Apr 2018 08.40 BST

A cool glass of sauvignon canalside in the summer. A soothing beer by a pub fire as the leaves turn red. Mulled wine with a Christmas mince pie. Alcohol is shot through British life like, well, shots on a night out. But recent trends suggest that might be changing. Could the British love of booze be drying up as surely as our passion for cigarettes?

Consider this: in 1974, half of British adults smoked; by 2017, that figure had fallen to just 16%, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). The decline was a result both of public health campaigns and legislation encouraging people to cut back or stop smoking. In 2003, for instance, the branding of cigarettes as “light” was banned in the UK. That same year, EU legislation brought in health warnings on products, and in March 2006 Scotland became the first country in the UK to introduce a smoke-free law. This was followed in 2007 by legislation banning smoking in workplaces and enclosed public spaces in England (Wales and Northern Ireland also legislated against smoking that year).

The result was immediate: fag breaks at work were suddenly more frowned upon; the huddle of people outside the pub failing to light a cigarette in the driving rain came to seem pitiful. All the incremental changes – the health warnings, legislation, the images of diseased lungs on fag packets, the association with impotence – led to a genuine cultural shift. If you wanted to keep smoking, you had to be really committed (addicted, maybe?). Social and fairweather smokers dropped away.

Could the same trend be under way with our attitude to alcohol? Some experts believe so. It will be a huge shift, because drinking in the UK has a spirited history, stretching back thousands of years – jugs for fermenting alcohol go back to the stone age, past Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane in the 1700s through to the peak modern drinking period of the 90s and early 00s. This was the Britpop era: a wasted Jarvis Cocker mooning at Michael Jackson at the Brit awards in 1996 and the hideous proliferation of garish alcopops with brand names with no vowels. That period also saw a breakdown in the social taboos around women’s drinking that led to an explosion of alcohol being marketed to them. Witness the birth of the ladette and girlfriends drinking boyfriends under the table. Witness a massive overall rise in consumption.

As a society, we have always thought of drinking as a bit naughty. The language we use is telling. A “cheeky pint” after work; a “swift half”; “OK, but just one glass of merlot”. Everyone has feigned resistance at one time or another – but we don’t try very hard. And in recent decades, anyone who didn’t want to drink was considered an anomaly. You driving? You sick? You on antibiotics? You pregnant? You, you know … (whisper it) in recovery? An answer of none of the above would elicit raised eyebrows, a puzzled expression or, more likely, mirth. Possibly even anger or dislike. In years past, people who have chosen sobriety, or rarely had a drink, have been subject to intense peer pressure. Nondrinkers became isolated – not out of preference, but because British social life has been entirely organised around alcohol. Booze sat at the head of the table at dinner parties, dominated the dancefloor and landed deals at lunch meetings.

Higher-income groups are increasingly ‘endangering’ their health with their drinking habits. Photograph: Phillip Waterman/Getty Images/Cultura RF

But over the past decade, that culture has shifted. It has certainly been difficult to avoid the news that alcohol isn’t good for you. The most recent reminder came last week, care of a Lancet paper, reporting that every glass of wine or pint of beer over the daily recommended limit will cut half an hour from the expected lifespan of a 40-year-old. And that recommended upper safe limit is lower than you might expect. The paper suggested five 175ml glasses of wine or five pints a week – about 12.5 units in total. Overdo it, and you are at greater risk of stroke, fatal aneurysm, heart failure and early death.

Then there’s the cancer risk. There was consternation in 2016 when Prof Dame Sally Davies, the government’s chief medical officer, told MPs just one glass of wine could increase the risk of breast cancer. This came just a few weeks after the recommended upper safe limit for men was revised down from 21 to 14 units a week, the same as for women.

The quality newspapers interview health experts and sociologists about the problems with alcohol; the popular press shames indulgent punters (usually northern, often women) on dark high streets, hitting the chip shops at 3am. That picture of the woman lying on her back on a bench, sozzled, gets wheeled out. And there have been all sorts of schemes and campaigns designed to curb our enthusiasm for drinking. There’s the Department of Transport’s road-safety Think! campaign, for instance, much of which has focused on drink driving.

In 2012, Andrew Lansley and the Department for Health rolled out the Change4Life campaign, while Challenge 25, introduced in 2005 by the British Beer and Pub Association, encourages people who may look under 25 to carry ID when attempting to purchase alcohol, and encourages retailers to ask for it. This has made it harder for groups of teenagers to bulk buy supermarket-own tinnies. (Attempting to enter licensed premises to buy alcohol using a fake ID is a criminal offence, carrying a maximum £5,000 fine and up to 10 years imprisonment.)

All of this legislation, campaigning and awareness raising has had an impact, just as they did on tobacco consumption. In particular, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and the later Generation Z (those born after 1996), are surprisingly sober.

“Alcohol is a strange concept,” says Ben Gartside, 19, a politics student at Hull University who is originally from Manchester. “Here’s a liquid you can drink and it can lead to you not remembering the night before and making bad decisions.” Ben is typical of many young people I speak to, in that he prefers to spend his money on food and travel rather than pub sessions.

Another young person I speak to says his family are heavy drinkers and he wanted to avoid falling into that pattern. In a broader sense, says Dr James Nicholls, director of research and policy development at Alcohol Research UK, this is quite common among young people; they are rebelling against older generations’ chosen methods of rebellion. According to a 2017 ONS study, more than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal, a four-fold increase on the rest of the population, with just one in 10 seeing drinking as “cool”. Nicholls says that drinking among young people has been declining for a decade.

The millennials and Gen Zers I spoke to cited various reasons for their sobriety; one of the most recurrent was that between university tuition fees, the axing of maintenance grants and the sixth form EMA grant, and the perilously high cost of housing, they are pretty much broke. But they also have concerns for their mental and physical health. Lauren Clapp, 23, says booze made her chronic fatigue syndrome worse. There is also a case to be made that young people, who suffer disproportionately with mental health issues (a third of 16- to 24-year-olds have experienced a mental health issue in the past 12 months, according to one survey), are more open to talk and seek support, relying less on substances as an emotional crutch.

Cigarettes and alcohol have long been linked – but for how much longer? Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images

But not everyone is laying off, even with the growing awareness of alcohol’s negative side effects. There are plenty of people who hold out for those articles proposing that red wine is good for blood pressure and cling to the glamorous champagne habits of celebrities. Drinking among the middle-aged middle classes has not declined. In fact, while some of them might feel smug to have left their binge-drinking pasts behind, their regular daily consumption might be doing more damage to their bodies, not less. In 2015, Age Concern found that higher-income groups are “endangering” their health with their drinking habits. Figures show that mortality rates due to alcohol, among people aged 75 and over, have risen to their highest level since records began in 1991.

In fact, alcohol consumption is rising among the over-50s. This is a looming crisis for the NHS, health experts warn, as alcohol contributes to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as a litany of cancers.

But the fact is that those who are currently middle-aged may prove to be the last generation who of boozehounds. Just as young people are changing the worlds of politics, technology and environmentalism, it is possible that this shift in the British attitude to alcohol will last the course. And further legislation and awareness is planned for the future. Next month, minimum alcohol unit pricing comes into force in Scotland.

We are not alone in this cultural shift. While many countries, particularly our European cousins, have long had a mature attitude to drinking, Nicholls says that declining interest in alcohol, especially among young people, is a worldwide trend. This is true even of countries that used to be big on the booze, such as Russia.

We don’t know for sure, of course, that Britain will become a dry land in years to come – alcohol trends peak and trough, but it has never looked more likely than it does now. Drinks on me, then – it’s going to be a cheap round.