The amount of alcohol young people drink in many high-income countries has seen a marked decline since the early 2000s. But in many developing countries, the opposite is happening. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast, we talk to three experts studying trends in young people’s drinking habits to find out why and we explore the questions this raises about the way young people see themselves and their place in the world.
Japan’s national tax agency raised eyebrows around the world in August when it launched a campaign urging more young people to drink alcohol. Its reason was economic: an ageing demographic and changing habits during the COVID pandemic meant a drop in tax revenue from alcohol sales.
But while Japan’s reaction to the issue may be unusual, it’s by no means the only country where young people are drinking less alcohol. High-income countries in Europe, North America and Australasia are seeing significant declines in the amount and frequency that young people drink, after a peak in around 2003.
“Drinking in all forms is going down,” says Amy Pennay, a research fellow at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “Abstinence rates are rising. People are drinking less frequently and people are drinking less on an occasion when they do drink,” Pennay explains. The sharpest declines are in the under 18s, but there’s also been a flow-on effect in most high-income countries to 18- to 24-year-olds.
Pennay is part of a group of researchers in Australia, the UK and Sweden analysing trends in youth drinking. One of her colleagues in Sweden, Jonas Raninen at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has been tracking drinking trends among young Swedes born in 2001 as part of a longitudinal study. “I would say that 17 is the new 15,” he says, explaining the overall decline is also pushing up the age at which people start drinking.
Taking all this data together, researchers are beginning to pinpoint the reasons why declines in youth drinking are happening in these high-income countries. They’re finding just how different life is for today’s teenagers compared to those entering adulthood 20 years ago. “Alcohol has become for young people something that’s gone from being … a reward and pursued, to something that’s really avoided,” she explains.
Elsewhere in the world, however, developing countries are seeing the opposite: an increase in how much young people drink. Emeka Dumbili, a lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in south-eastern Nigeria, has been studying youth drinking in the country since 2012. In his interviews with young people aged 18-25, he’s found an increase in the number who tell him that they drink, even if it’s a small amount. “Some of them are initiating consumption either before they come to university, as early as 13 years or even lower than that. And many people who didn’t drink before they got to university began to drink immediately they come to university,” he says.
Listen to the full episode via The Conversation Weekly podcast to find out more about the reasons for these different trends in youth drinking around the world.
This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany and Katie Flood, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. It was written by Gemma Ware, who is also the executive producer. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.
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