Manchester children ‘at risk’ as city named binge drinking capital of North West

Manchester and Salford are the ‘binge drinking capitals of the North West’, according to an anti-binge drinking initiative.

Their survey found that nine out of 10 people in the region want the government to do more to protect young people from alcohol.

These latest figures are the result of a survey conducted by Drink Wise, an initiative created to minimise the harm caused by drinking.

MM also revealed last year how Manchester is the drink-death capital of the UK. 

More than 2,500 people from across the region took the Drink Wise Challenge, revealing a climate of fear surrounding the effects of alcohol on young people in particular.

In response, South Manchester Liberal Democrat MP, John Leech, and Drink Wise Director, Hazel Parsons, travelled to London to present Downing Street with their findings and concerns.

MM spoke to Ms Parsons about the region’s love hate relationship with alcohol, and what she believes the country’s leadership must do to ensure its related problems are tackled.

“The reason there are so many deaths and so much harm is because we are the binge drinking capital of the North West,” she said.

“We tend to drink more than other regions overall. This comes from drinking on more days of the week and also when we do, we drink more than in other areas.

“Nobody knows why that is. We are working on various assumptions, one being that alcohol is readily available around the clock in the North West and it’s very cheap. The other being alcohol as something cultural.

“We also have a lot of dockyards around the region and drinking has long been a North West tradition.”

More than 70% of respondents believe that one way to tackle the issue is to end the pocket money pricing of alcohol.

Ms Parsons wants the next government to implement a minimum unit price, which will stop extremely cheap liquor from being sold.

She said: “We’ve seen lives saved in Canada because they have introduced a minimum unit price, which puts the price of very strong alcohol up. It’s very targeted and that is important.

“We know that people who drink a lot tend to go for strong alcohol and they tend to go for the cheap stuff, like big bottles of White Lightning.

“Your average bottle of wine in the supermarket wouldn’t change much, probably around a 20p increase, and the price of a pint in the pub wouldn’t change at all.

“This isn’t about putting the price of everything up out of the reach of everyone. It’s about being realistic, and saying that alcohol shouldn’t be sold as something like coffee or cornflakes.

“It’s basic economics. The cheaper something is, the more people are able to buy of it. It is a drug and we shouldn’t be selling cans of larger cheaper than a bottle of water.”

Nearly 90% of people who took part in the survey also want the government to restrict alcohol marketing for young people, but with the industry spending around £800million a year on advertising, that may prove a difficult hurdle to overcome.

“We are really concerned about the impact that marketing has on children in particular, because a lot of the research shows that they are more susceptible,” the Drink Wise director added.

“Your average 15-year-old sees more advertising than your average 25-year-old because of the nature of where these adverts are.

“Their own codes say that they aren’t supposed to be showing young people or people that are enjoying social or sexual success as a result of alcohol advertising, but almost any advert shows you that the codes are just not strong enough.

“The industry is selling the public a glamorous lifestyle, associating alcohol with having a good time and being a fun person and that is what young people are taking from them.”

Alcohol advertising in Scotland was the subject of a recent BBC documentary, in which the British Medical Association (BMA) accused industry regulation of being ‘far too weak’ and contributing to the country’s drink problems.

Health bodies and the Scottish government are now calling for a ban on alcohol advertisements before the 9pm watershed.

Chairman of the BMA Scotland, Dr Peter Bennie, spoke to the BBC and criticised how the industry has been allowed to regulate itself, and Ms Parsons firmly believes that  has to change across the whole of Great Britain.

She added: “What is the point in us educating our young people and spending a fraction of that £800million a year, when we are not tackling the counter education that is coming from the marketing?

“There is really strong research from around the world that when children are exposed to a lot of alcohol advertising, they are more likely to drink and to drink more.

“The industry will say that they are not targeting young people, but all the research shows that their adverts are reaching young people and are influencing them.”

She wants the government to look towards France, who introduced the Loi Evin law back in 1991, to limit alcohol and tobacco advertising.

For a country which is well known for its love of drinking, this law has a number of stipulations, including all alcohol advertising must contain a health warning, and advertising is not permitted at sporting or cultural events, or on TV and in cinemas.  

One of the aims of the Drink Wise campaign is to restrict alcohol marketing to areas that are more adult friendly.

Under-18 films in cinemas and social media are two places where that kind of marketing would not be permitted.

But Ms Parsons emphasised that increasing unit pricing and placing limits the industry are not enough on their own.

She discussed the power of education as a way of helping young people to make the right choices, and possess an awareness of the wider risks that alcohol poses.

There is a particular urgency considering 15 children a day are being hospitalised because of alcohol, with hundreds of those as young as 11.

“In ten or 20 years, people are going to look back and say why were we not warned about the risks of casual drinking,” Ms Parsons said.

“All the research shows that so many people don’t know there is any risk of cancer when there is actually a massive risk. It’s the absolute truth and we are so far from knowing it as consumers.

“You shouldn’t just be worried about becoming an alcoholic or dying from liver disease. There are loads of other associated health issues that you can get from drinking.

“Most people that die from alcohol related issues aren’t alcoholics. They are just people that have drunk too much for too long. They are people who have sat at home and had four or five pints or a bottle of wine every night.

“They don’t see themselves as dependent and they are probably not dependent, but they have not realised that that level of drinking can kill them.”

Despite praising the current government for recognising that there is a big link between cheap alcohol and alcohol harm, Ms Parsons does not think that they have gone far enough.

“Politically, someone needs to take a very bold stance and not be afraid to challenge the weight of the alcohol industry, who lobby extremely heavily whenever their prices are affected,” she said.

“We need to look at the examples that we have learnt from smoking and act quickly so that people aren’t dying unnecessarily.

“We had to learn the hard way that we need to be stronger about the messages that we give to people. Consumers have a right to better protection.”

Alcohol is now over 60% more affordable than it was in 1980, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Coupled with easy availability, drinking has become routine rather than a luxury.

MP John Leech has said that the public’s high level of concern about the effects of alcohol on children should encourage the government to ‘look again at the effectiveness of their strategies for tackling these problems’.

Ms Parsons praised his involvement with the campaign and credited the Manchester politician for his help in setting up the Number 10 handover.

She said: “He’s been campaigning on issues to do with alcohol in his own constituency for a long time, particularly as a big student population. His involvement has been greatly appreciated.”

The Drink Wise Director has urged all parents from all backgrounds to talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol.

“Parents be aware. Moderate your own message and have the conversation with them,” she said.

“Many children see their parents dinking socially, and then they go out into the world and they see other people binge drinking. They will see people lying in the streets after a night out and images in the media.

“Children who are given that vital message by their parents that drinking too much isn’t ok tend not to drink as much.

“As parents, we are scared of interfering as what is seen as a rite of passage, and it is a tricky situation, but there are lots of tools to help adults have that conversation.

“The true problem is our culture and the messages that sends to our children. We are inadvertently teaching our children to drink.”

She discussed how this is happening ‘throughout all different backgrounds and social classes’, and ‘definitely not about council estate kids that are out of control and their parents are not interested’.

Ms Parsons added: “And that is not just about the children either. If you talk to any doctor, they will say I’m treating people that are dentists, solicitors and middle class housewives as well.

“This is the one public health epidemic that affects the middle class as much as the working class. They are all drinking quite equally.”

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Image courtesy of Ian Forsyth, with thanks.

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