Addiction - 'We're blind to the dangers of alcohol'

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Former No 10 spin doctor says schools must educate teenagers

Alastair Campbell, once a Downing Street spin doctor, knows how to get his message across. Now, Tony Blair's former right-hand man is applying his formidable communication skills to the issue of teenage alcoholism.

Mr Campbell, who worked with Britain's former prime minister for six years, believes that education on problem drinking is being sidelined in schools by a focus on illegal drugs. Teachers and policymakers must pay greater attention to the issue or risk growing numbers of teenagers becoming addicted to alcohol, he told TES.

"There is a feeling that there is a focus on drugs, and, of course, drugs are a serious problem, but maybe there's a sense that policymakers have taken their eye off the ball [when it comes to alcohol]," Mr Campbell said. "I do think that, in the UK, we're blind to the dangers of alcohol because it is so much a part of society."

The subject of alcoholism is one that is close to Mr Campbell's heart: he suffered from alcohol dependency and depression in his youth. He has said publicly that he was first warned about his drinking at the age of 17, when a doctor told him he should be careful. In the mid-1980s he was hospitalised, experiencing a near breakdown as a result of his alcohol addiction. He eventually quit drinking when he was 27.

The former journalist and now author explores the subject of teenage alcoholism in his latest novel, My Name Is., which tells the story of Hannah, who ends up in rehab.

The issue of excessive drinking has made headlines recently as a result of the Neknomination phenomenon, in which young people film themselves downing alcoholic concoctions and post the video online. The fad has been linked to deaths among teenagers in Australia, Ireland, the US and the UK.

Media interest in binge drinking tends to focus on young people who are at least 18 years old. But Mr Campbell wants to get his message straight into schools - he spoke to TES after a visit last week to Coulsdon Sixth Form College in Surrey, England, which educates 16- to 19-year-olds.

"I think we're leaving a lot of the education to the drinks industry and they have a serious vested interest, which is selling as much as possible," he said. "I think the way alcohol is marketed, particularly to young people, the unit pricing of alcohol, all of these need to be changed.

"It is very difficult not to drink in this country. If you don't drink, you always have to give an explanation of why, and that is particularly difficult for younger people."

Mr Campbell said he had given a copy of his new novel to a number of Conservative Party members of the Cabinet, including prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne. But the person he most wants to read it is education secretary Michael Gove.

His concerns were echoed by charity Alcohol Concern, which has been campaigning for changes to the minimum price of alcohol and to the way it is advertised on social media.

But Tom Smith, the charity's policy programme manager, said it should not be left to schools to tackle the problem.

"Education is clearly very important, but it's not fair to leave it to schools to make the case for healthier choices," he said. "Society is saturated with pro-drinking messages and it is these areas, especially the way [alcohol] is marketed, that need to be tackled."

Brett Freeman, principal of Coulsdon Sixth Form College, said that the dangers of alcohol abuse among young people were "very real", and agreed with Mr Campbell's call for the issue of alcoholism to be made more prominent within the curriculum.

"As we are seeing with things like Neknomination, alcohol abuse and binge drinking is a very real problem for young people," Mr Freeman said.

"I do think school is a good place for students and teachers to have proper conversations about alcoholism, but [that's true of] many other things and it's just a matter of trying to fit it in."

What else?

Try a PowerPoint and fact sheets on the effects of alcohol.

This lesson considers decision-making when drunk and the consequences of drink-driving.

Tell the story of a girl whose life was changed for ever by a drunk driver.

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