The North East of England has for a long time been the perfect sales ground for the alcohol industry.
The region’s pubs and clubs are often the preferred destinations for stag and hen-dos from across the UK – and beyond.
But a recent trend has prompted concerns that the golden goose may have taken flight.
New studies and reports have suggested an increasing indifference to the “charms of the demon drink” on the part of young people that extends across all age groups.
This has happened before. In the early 90s numbers of young people drinking did begin to decline amid claims many were instead turning to recreational drugs and their ‘escape’ of choice.
It was around this time that Alcopops arrived on the drinking scene.
Today, according to a University of Sunderland public health expert, there is evidence of a new weapon in re-interest drinkers in drinking – step forward bubblegum gin and marshmallow vodka.
John Mooney, a Senior Lecturer in Public Health, said: “There is no doubt about the current trend: youths and young adults are clearly drinking less alcohol – in what seems to run counter to the traditional image of ‘irresponsible teenagers’ drinking to excess and partying the night away.”
In a recently published survey of nearly 10,000 participants aged 16 to 24 years, using a 10 year analysis of Health Survey for England datasets, rates of non-drinking increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. In the same study for the same period, “not drinking in the past week” increased from 35% to 50%.
Declines in drinking would be expected of course to be accompanied by public health benefits and alcohol related hospital admission rates in England at least have been falling in line with the downward trend of consumption as have the numbers of under 18s referred to specialist alcohol services.
This, according to the Sunderland academic, has a particular resonance for North East England, where the rates of alcohol related hospital admissions for under 18’s have been among the highest in the country and which in recent years have been falling more sharply than for England as a whole, although, of course, the starting point has been higher.
John Mooney, who is also an Associate at public health research organisation Fuse, added: “While the reasons behind these regional, national and international declines in youth drinking are as yet not particularly well understood, it is probably worth noting that we have been here before, with the early 1990s seeing international declines in youth drinking.
“Many commentators on alcohol consumption trends at that time have also noted that the previous decline was accompanied by a robust ‘product diversification’ response by the alcohol industry, most notably the rise of ‘alcoholic soft drinks’ or ‘alcopops’.”
Consumption data confirmed these suspicions, with figures released by the UK Department of Health in 2002 revealing the average alcohol consumption of children aged 11 to 15 who were drinkers had rocketed from 5.3 units a week in 1990 to 9.8: ‘Alcopops’ or ready to drink mixes (RTD’s) of spirits and soft drinks were blamed.
John said: “This previous experience and the industry response does of course beg the question if there will be a similar response this time around and the format that this might take.
“For a number of commentators, the industry responses are already clearly in evidence, most notably perhaps being a proliferation in novelty gin varieties, perhaps the most blatant ‘cross-over’ with confectionary style marketing being bubble-gum gin or marshmallow flavoured vodka.
“Of course, there is also a ready-made consumer base among young adults for energy drinks and there is a long established practice of these drinks as alcoholic mixers.”
Current downward trends in alcohol consumption might already be seeing a similar marketing response but the extent to which that will succeed is still guesswork, given the as yet lack of clear understanding around what might be behind current trends.
John added: “From a North East public health perspective of course, long may these trends continue, since the medium to long term population health dividend in this part of the world in particular is likely to be considerable.”