Andrew Vine: Welcome to Leeds where students' booze binge hangover may last lifetime

THE young woman sprawled on the pavement might have been crying because she'd grazed her knee as she fell, or possibly because the most hurtful injury was to her dignity.

Tuesday, 11th October 2016, 12:08 am
Updated Tuesday, 25th October 2016, 5:11 pm
Students are drinking themselves to oblivion.

If that was the case, she could take solace that she wasn’t on her own. A couple of her mates had keeled over as well, and at least none had been sick on themselves like some of the men with them.

Welcome to the sights and sounds of a new student year, with young people away from home for the first time and being flattened by a tidal wave of booze.

An unfunny pantomime of teenagers staggering and falling, to a soundtrack of retching, weeping and shouting, soon to be augmented by the siren of an approaching ambulance.

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The police had already arrived, not to detain anybody, but to look after a pale, trembling young man who’d taken a nasty bang on the head as he fell until the paramedics got there, while trying to get some sense out of his friends about how much – and what – he’d drunk.

This was the main road through Headingley, in Leeds, long the city’s student heartland, on just another night that will be replicated in every other town or city with a university.

Sons and daughters completely off the parental leash for the first time, indulging in a rite of passage on the way to real adulthood. Probably the most fun they’d ever had, at least until the tears started to flow and some ended up in the midnight influx into accident and emergency.

For the rest, sore heads the morning after and a vow never to do it again that only lasts until next weekend.

All part of growing up, and as much a part of student life as attending lectures and disastrous attempts at cookery.

There is a great deal of peer pressure involved in these drinking bouts – and outside influences as well, not least the organised crawls from bar to bar in which excessive drinking is encouraged.

It’s all part of a binge drinking culture amongst young people that ought to be of more serious concern to both parents and the government.

The chances are that most of those sprawled on Headingley’s pavements will grow out of drinking until they are unable to stand, looking back on it in years to come with either amusement or a cringe.

But some won’t. By the time they hit 30, there will be those among them who never go a day without having a drink, and at a certain time automatically reach for a bottle and then another.

They won’t be found on the streets any more, but insensible at home, and for some the consequences will gradually poison every aspect of their 
lives as jobs are lost and relationships collapse.

Britain has a problem with drink and young people are developing a troubled relationship with alcohol earlier than ever before, in many cases before they are even old enough to buy it legally.

We ought to be worried about this, because it is storing up problems for the future.

A sophisticated marketing industry has grown up devoted to introducing teenagers to alcohol, weaning them seamlessly from fizzy drinks to luridly-coloured, sweetened bottles of booze that often contain a potent amount of spirit. And it appears to be girls who are particularly vulnerable to this sort of aggressive selling.

A report last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development identified a growing drink problem amongst Britain’s girls, concluding that they are more likely than boys to get drunk than in any other Western country.

A third of girls surveyed admitted that they had been drunk at least twice by the age of 15, and by the same age, Britain has twice as many female drinkers than France or the Netherlands.

Add to that a report from the Alcohol Health Alliance that high-strength cider can be bought at pocket-money prices, and a picture emerges of a culture where it is all but inevitable that teenagers end up lying drunk in the street.

That is not a distinction to be proud of. Nor can it be a coincidence that the medical profession has repeatedly warned in recent years that hospitals are seeing a worrying rise in the number of younger people with serious drink-related liver problems.

If boozing is starting earlier than ever in young people, then so must action to combat it.

There are lessons to be drawn from our European neighbours, such as France, where families introduce children to wine with meals, and a responsible attitude towards alcohol is developed early. That’s a healthier way to learn about drink than in a bar with a brightly-coloured alcopop.

After all, the really unsettling thing about the 18 and 19-year-olds flat on their backs on the streets of Headingley is that some are not at the beginning of a destructive relationship with alcohol, but already entangled in one.