Youth Binge Drinking – Overall Trends

"Binge drinking" or heavy episodic drinking designates a pattern of alcohol drinking with the primary intention of becoming intoxicated over a short period of time. Widely spread in Anglo-Saxon and Northern Europe countries, this kind of drinking style is booming in many other countries, especially among young people, with the numerous social risks it involves, including violent and impulsive behaviors, loss of control, DUI, altercations, addiction, etc. 

First of all, what is it exactly? Although there is no worldwide consensus on a single definition, the term "binge drinking" is generally taken to mean consuming five or more standard drinks (1) for men and four or more for women, on a single occasion. However, what characterizes binge drinking is a festive pattern of consumption, generally in groups, in the sole purpose of achieving intoxication. In most countries, binge drinkers are primarily young men, with the exception of Finland, Denmark and the United Kingdom where girls are now more likely to intoxicate themselves than boys.

Although there has been a worrying increase in the binge drinking phenomenon in Southern Europe countries (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal) and in Latin American, those most affected are Northern Europe countries, the UK, Canada and the US. In the UK, the phenomenon has become a major cause for concern: in 2003, the overall cost of binge drinking was estimated at £20 billion a year, and as regards american drinking culture, especially among teens, it now seems to be defined by binge drinking. 

As stated by Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control. "About 50% of all the alcohol consumed by adults, and about 90% of all the alcohol consumed by young people is consumed during a binge drinking session"

Consequences of Binge Drinking

Binge drinkers expose themselves to severe health effects, but the main source of danger derives from the behavioral disorders associated with this drinking style. Binge drinking exposes individuals to a loss of control and to impulsive and violent behaviors which can be highly dangerous for themselves and others. Dangers may comprise alcohol related crashes and the myriad of risks that are generally associated with intoxication and the sense of invulnerability that goes with it. These may result in physical, moral or sexual violence or expose youth to risks they would never have taken ordinarily.

"Too much alcohol makes you feel invincible when you're most vulnerable" – Prevention campaign (UK)

Could some countries be protected by their drinking culture?

It is deemed that binge drinking is intricately connected to American drinking culture, especially on campuses where students often feel that they have to be inebriated in order to socialize and have fun. There is even is a commonly held perception that this culture is responsible for the high rates of binge drinking nationwide. The idea is often expressed that young people in European countries are introduced to alcohol slowly, in a family and cultural context that reduces heavy and harmful drinking. On the opposite, because the drinking age in the US is 21, much higher than in most European Countries, young people miss out on the opportunity to learn to drink within safe family settings where moderate drinking is the norm.

Although appealing, this argument does not withstand the test of facts. Had the young Europeans really learnt how to drink safely, we would then expect to see much lower rates of intoxication there than in the US. Yet, the 2007 ESPAD survey (European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs) revealed that 15 to 16 year old students in the majority of European countries report a higher prevalence of intoxication in the last 30 days than their US counterparts. 

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that for teens, there is a huge difference between the half-glass of wine they are allowed to drink in the family setting during holidays and the parties they will have with their friends during the next weekend. In addition, for over fifty years, all major trends were born in the United States before spreading in other countries… 

[1] A standard drink contains between 12 et 14 g of alcohol, that is a glass of beer with  per cent of alcohol, a glass of wine with 12%, or a small glass of spirit (40%)