Youth of 'Booze Britain' on a deadly binge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 October, 2008, 12:00am


A sober student during 'freshers' week' in Britain is a rare thing. The introduction to academic life is for many an alcohol-fuelled haze of parties, pub crawls and parental liberation.

But the extremes to which students go to fit into the life of an undergraduate are proving far from frivolous. Once synonymous with campus life in the United States, 'hazing' rituals are surfacing as part of the student culture.

As the initiation stunts become more gruesome and in some cases have catastrophic consequences, the spotlight has fallen on binge drinking at universities.

Students are consuming alcohol at unprecedented levels, mirroring a national concern over 'Booze Britain' as the drinking culture soars to record highs with often violent consequences.

This month, a group from the University of Gloucestershire were the focus of an embarrassing indictment on student life.

Hazing rituals, which usually involve binge drinking, have become increasingly common among sports clubs and societies: students must take part in bizarre ceremonies to become members.

For the Gloucestershire students, the ceremony involved being paraded through the streets with plastic bags over their heads under the instructions of a student dressed in a Nazi officer's uniform.

Several of the students then vomited onto the pavement before being marched off again. However, they were unwittingly filmed by a fellow student, who also captured another group undergoing violent exercise while drunk.

The university has been quick to condemn the acts, which grabbed headlines across the globe. According to a university spokesman, a formal investigation has been launched.

Initiation ceremonies are banned at the university. Communications director Paul Drake said: 'Disciplinary action may be brought against those who are found to be leading initiation ceremonies.'

He also stressed that the incident represented a 'small minority'.

Small minority or not, there have been plenty of bad-news stories in the newspapers about hazing.

In 2006, a first-year student at the University of Exeter died from alcohol poisoning after an initiation ceremony that involved drinking four vodkas, three pints of cider, a glass of wine and a number of sambucas before sinking a pint of spirits.

The purpose of the ceremony was to gain entry to the golf club. Students taking part had visited 13 pubs and bars that night. Gavin Britton, just 18, was found dead the next day, having choked on his vomit.

The previous year, criminology and psychology student Tom Ward from Hull University died of alcohol poisoning after taking part in an initiation ceremony for the university's rugby team.

In 2003, 18-year-old Staffordshire University student Alex Doji likewise died after a hazing ritual in which he had to pick balloons with his teeth from a tub of chilli and dog food for the university's rugby team. He choked on his own vomit.

Addiction specialist Martin Plant of the University of the West of England, based in Bristol, noted: 'Sadly universities are big places; we very often find there are some groups that adopt dim-witted approaches to hazing.'

He stresses that although levels are not as bad as those in the US, hazing is increasingly part of university life.

'If you approach any university they will say they totally oppose this. But it's very hard to police given a very large population of students.'

Professor Plant has been involved in Europe-wide research on the phenomenon of binge drinking among teenagers and young adults, and ranks Britain at the top of the scale.

Binge drinking - defined as having more than five alcoholic drinks in a row at least three times in the past 30 days - is on the rise among teenagers, who drink twice as much now as they did during the 1990s.

'There has been a spectacular rise in alcohol consumption,' Professor Plant said.

According to the charity Alcohol Concern, about 35 per cent of British teenagers have reported being drunk by the age of 13. About 1,000 young Britons under the age of 15 require emergency treatment for alcohol poisoning each year.

The benchmark study for binge drinking used in Britain is the 2004 European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs, which found Britain to be the worst in Europe for teen drunkenness and alcohol abuse.

According to the study, 91 per cent of British schoolchildren aged 15 and 16 had been drinking in the past 12 months, compared with the 83 per cent European average.

Professor Plant is updating the study and the results will be released in December. The picture today is bleak, he says.

'We found confirmation that the UK has one of the highest levels of teen drinking in Europe,' he stressed.

Since the 1990s, alcohol consumption has risen at a tremendous rate in Britain, he notes. Girls and women in particular have outpaced their male peers. He cites the lower price of alcohol and increased availability as major forces.

Britain has long grappled with the phenomenon of binge drinking, most recently culminating in a proposal this month by the government to ban free drinks for women and free wine and beer tastings.

The new proposals, put forward by the Home Office and the Department of Health, would also restrict the ability of bars to offer low-priced drinks during happy hours.

Aneurin Owen, trustee of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, believes a broader approach is needed.

'The response really has to be comprehensive and integrated,' he said. 'It has to be a combination of police measures, street presence, control of the nighttime environment and measures at the point of sale.'

With the emphasis currently on drinking as much as possible in a short space of time, Britain has adopted a 'vertical drinking environment', he argued. Many bars and clubs are devoid of tables and seats for punters, putting pressure on them to drink up as quickly as possible.

Promotions of certain drinks are also geared towards rapid consumption, triggering what Mr Owen dubbed 'liquid violence'.

'All in all, I think the situation is pretty grim,' he said.

Students are being lured with extremely low prices: cider can be as cheap as 11 pence (HK$1.50) per unit. 'Compare that with the price of water - it's no wonder we have this situation,' Mr Owen said.

Promotions by drink companies are also common at universities to build brand loyalty. 'The potential for encouraging inappropriate drinking is very high,' Mr Owen noted.

Students themselves have taken steps to purge the media of the image of undergraduates as irresponsible binge drinkers: in April, the National Union of Students launched a campaign to raise awareness about excessive drinking on campus.

In the meantime, student unions are quick to stress zero tolerance of hazing activities. James Durant, head of the student union at Gloucestershire University, said the union goes to great lengths to ensure clubs and groups adhere to a ban.

'Many initiation-style events do not involve alcohol or extreme behaviour,' he argued. 'But there may be exceptions.' He added that once brought to the union's attention, investigations would follow.

Others are not as optimistic. Mr Owen believes Britain is barely scratching the surface with its approach to binge drinking.

'Unfortunately we have deaths and injury and situations where we feel we're simply helpless. But what else can we do?'