Health Committee - The Government's Alcohol StrategyWritten evidence from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (GAS 67)

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the UK. For over a century we have been engaged with searching out the causes of social problems, investigating solutions and seeking to influence those who can make changes. JRF’s purpose is to understand the root causes of social problems, to identify ways of overcoming them, and to show how social needs can be met in practice. The Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) shares the aims of JRF and engages in practical housing and care work.

In 2007, JRF began a major programme of research on young people and alcohol, focusing on developing our understanding of the way in which young people’s drinking cultures are formed and influenced, with the aim of supporting a reduction in problematic drinking amongst young people. We are delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the Health Select Committee’s Inquiry on the government’s Alcohol Strategy, drawing on the findings from this body of work.

Health Messages and Parenting

Our research shows that parents have a very significant influence on their children’s approach to alcohol and drinking, and that this influence continues into their teenage years. This said, parents’ own drinking behaviour and parenting style appears to be more important than their role in imparting health messages.

A major evidence review commissioned at the beginning of our programme (Velleman, 2009) makes it clear that children begin to learn about alcohol and drunkenness at a very young age (aged 3 onwards). As they get older, children assume that they will grow up to drink in the same way as their parents (Valentine, 2010).

For this reason, approaches aimed at minimising young people’s drinking must take account of these early influences, and parents in particular need to be made aware of the impact that drinking in front of even very young children may have. For instance, evidence suggests that drinking to excess in front of young children on holiday or at family celebrations, can have a negative effect on their drinking outcomes (Valentine, 2010).

Engaged parenting, where parents and children spend plenty of time together, with parents aware of their children’s friends and whereabouts, has a positive influence on the nature and level of young people’s drinking (Sondhi et al, 2011). Similarly, while peers also have a significant influence, parents have a role in choosing the friends their children have and in supervising those friendships (Velleman, 2009). It is therefore important that parents are made aware of the potential for this kind of engaged and active parenting to have a range of positive outcomes, including delaying their child’s first drink and moderating their drinking.

Finally, our research indicates that the guidance parents give children about alcohol and drinking is drawn more from their own experiences and beliefs than from official health messages. Many parents adopt a “continental” approach, introducing their children to drinking with family meals, while others focus their guidance on the importance of avoiding hangovers or risky situations, glossing over the long term health consequences of drinking. This suggests that the health messages parents currently receive may not be helpful to them in offering guidance to their children, largely because they do not reflect parents’ own choices around alcohol (Sohndi, 2011).

Taken together, these findings suggest the need for an approach to informing, supporting and educating parents that emphasises the influence of their own drinking choices as well as of active parenting, alongside support for talking to children about alcohol in a way that reflects some of the long term consequences of drinking as well as short term risks.

Advertising and Marketing

As Velleman notes, “young people who see, hear and read more alcohol advertisements are more likely to drink and drink heavily than their peers” (Velleman, 2009). Clearly, the level of exposure young people have to marketing materials or to wider media featuring alcohol does have an impact on the choices they make about drinking and drunkenness.

This said, findings from other research projects in our programme indicate that the relationship between young people and media influences is becoming increasingly complex in ways that have significant implications both for our approach to advertising and marketing and to health promotion activities.

Our research exploring media influences on children and young people aged 11–18 made it clear that young people were watching alcohol advertisements both pre and post watershed, as well as looking at alcohol advertisements in magazines and on both formal and informal social networking sites (Sumnall et al, 2011). These advertisements “not only directly advertised alcoholic beverages, but also depicted alcohol in the promotion of non-alcoholic consumer items and the sponsorship of leisure activities such as football and music festivals”.

This exposure to advertising in online and social media indicates that the extension of the Advertising Standards Authority remit to cover these platforms is an important step, as is the government’s commitment in the Alcohol Strategy to working with the ASA on enforcement in this field. However, these findings also point to the weakness of the existing co-regulation by Ofcom and self-regulation via the ASA and the Portman Group as “60% of respondents were exposed to alcohol advertisements on a daily basis; 11–12-year-olds (our youngest participants) were exposed at this level of frequency just as much as older age groups” (Sumnall, 2011).

While this research makes it clear that young people are very active consumers of alcohol related advertising and marketing, it also indicates that they are relatively critical consumers. Young people in this study were aware of the financial and editorial incentives that might influence the media’s presentation of alcohol. They were critical of the way in which drinking alcohol was gendered in the media, where drinking was presented as a mandatory part of being a man, whereas women drinking was presented in a contradictory way: either glamorous, or unfeminine. They felt that the overall picture was exaggerated: drinking was portrayed as a pervasive norm (everyone drinks) and negative consequences of drinking were limited to portrayals of alcoholism and violence.

Finally, it is important to note that alcohol consumers, including young people, are also active producers of alcohol marketing materials. Our research found that only 0.5% of social media site pages devoted to specific brands of alcohol were official. The remaining 99.5% were unofficial, customer generated content which presented positive images and stories about alcohol brands and drunkenness without any of the responsible drinking messaging that is often included on official sites. Social networking and online applications have become part of the leisure experience of drinking for many young people, with fan groups for drunkenness and customer generated online drinking games.

This suggests that the approach to regulation of advertising alcohol should be strengthened, but that that the emergence of online marketing and social networking mean that the impact of regulation may be limited. The young people’s critical consumption of media points to the possibility of a successful counter marketing approach, along the lines of the Florida “Truth” campaign (see below).

Public Health Education and Marketing

At the outset of our alcohol programme, we commissioned a review that explored the critical success factors for initiatives that have successfully changed public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours in other fields (Stead et al, 2009), with the aim of transferring this learning to influencing drinking cultures. This review, which included HIV awareness campaigns, drink driving campaigns and anti-smoking campaigns, identified a number of factors that are particularly relevant to changing social norms relating to alcohol.

The first key factor identified by the review was that initiatives aimed at changing cultural and social norms require a long term commitment to a single approach. By way of example, the shift in social norms relating to smoking has taken place over 50 years, changing norms around use of condoms has taken more than 20 years. This has both funding and political implications.

The second key factor involved a re-framing of the problem, where “moving away from traditional ‘victim blaming’ gave the campaign<s> an unassailable moral superiority in face of counter-arguments about ‘freedom’ and profits” (Stead et al, 2009).

Finally, it was clear that successful campaigns identified and spoke directly to their audience, often using humour and empathy. This is especially relevant to attempts to influence young people’s drinking, where traditional health messages may fall on stony ground. An excellent example of this is the Florida “Truth” campaign, now implemented and evaluated in a range of locations in the USA. Rather than focusing on the young smoker, the Truth campaign used counter marketing techniques to focus on tobacco industry tactics, presenting the young smoker as having been manipulated by big business.

Minimum Unit Pricing

None of our research focused on alcohol pricing, so we have limited evidence to offer on this topic. However, our research into peer group influences on drinking makes it clear that young people are actively trying to moderate their own drinking as well as that of their friends, and that taking out a limited amount of money is their primary tactic. This suggests that low price alcohol, as well as discounted offerings in the night time economy may be undermining young people’s attempts to drink more responsibly (Sondhi, 2011).


Bremner et al (2011). Young People, Alcohol and Influences, JRF, York.

Sohndi et al (2011). The Influence of Family and Friends on Young People’s Drinking, JRF, York

Stead (2009). Tackling Alcohol Harm: lessons from other fields, JRF, York.

Sumnall et al (2011). Young People, Alcohol and the Media, JRF, York

Velleman (2009). Children, Young People and Alcohol: how they learn and how to prevent excessive use, JRF, York

Valentine et al (2010). Alcohol Consumption and Family Life, JRF, York

May 2012

Prepared 21st July 2012