At its Second European Forum for Responsible Drinking, the pan-European social aspects organisation, The Amsterdam Group, looked to examine the problem of alcohol abuse among young people, one of the most politically sensitive areas of the alcohol debate. In his first of three features, Olly Wehring reports on what the conference had to say about Europe's young people and their drinking habits.

With growing political concern within the EU about alcohol abuse among adolescents, and the threat of further legislation, the drinks industry is well aware of the need to involve itself fully in the debate. And playing a key role in the industry's desire to be part of the solution is The Amsterdam Group (TAG), the Europe-wide social aspects organisation. At its Second European Forum for Responsible Drinking, held in Brussels last month, TAG looked to discuss the issue of Young People and Alcohol in Europe, and began by looking at what is known about young people's drinking habits.

Research presented by Marie Choquet, an epidemiologist and research director at Inserm in France, centred on a survey conducted in 1999 in 30 European countries. A minimum number of 2,000 16 year-olds in each country were surveyed.

For the sake of this research, binge drinking was defined as having consumed at least five drinks in succession in one sitting. The research revealed that in the UK, 57% of boys and 56% of girls had binged before. Moreover, this research revealed that 36% of boys and 43% of girls had partaken of alcohol in a bar or a pub, compared to 15% and 12% respectively who had drunk at home.

The richer the country, the research found, the more likely that younger people will have tried alcohol in their lifetime. In France, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands, over 80% said that they had consumed alcohol before, with Sweden touching 90%. Yet when asked if they had consumed more than 10 drinks per month, Sweden plummeted, being overtaken by the aforementioned four, with the Netherlands the highest at 20%, and the UK second at 16%.

When asked if they became intoxicated more than three times in one month, again the UK led the field. A total of 24% of the UK 16-year-olds asked answered in the affirmative, with Sweden second with 19%. Regarding alcohol contributing to problems, the UK again towered over the rest of Europe, with 13% of 16-year-olds having an accident whilst under the influence and Sweden holding second place again with 7%.

To conclude, Mme Choquet did at least have some good news. A national survey in France of 1,028 13- to 20-year-olds showed that things are getting better. The trend, between 1996 and 2001, was for the number of occasional and frequent consumers to drop from 67% to 55%, while the quantity consumed also fell, from 23 drinks per month to 19. Drunkenness was also heading in the right direction, down from 22% during the last month in 1996 to 12% in 2001. The hope is that these figures will have spread across the continent in time for the next Europe-wide survey, the results of which are due to be published before the end of this year.

The conference then moved on to look at the causes, consequences and cures of binge drinking, with Professor Adrian Furnham from University College London taking the baton. Professor Furnham began by querying the definition of binge drinking and suggesting that the phrase alone is a potential minefield. "If binge drinking is usually defined as 'five or more alcoholic drinks consumed in one sitting," Professor Furnham said, "then the average dinner party in the UK is a binge drinking session." The definition does not take into account the drinker's height and weight, his or her personal drinking history, the time period over which the alcohol was consumed, or whether food was consumed with the drink.

Moving on from this shaky basis, Professor Furnham then went on to compare two different gut reactions to the issue - that of educator, and that of legislator. The outright winner in this contest was the educator, with Professor Furnham suggesting that "changing the issue, in general terms, by changing legislation is a very naïve way to act." The educating of consumers was proposed as being more effective in the long run, as legislators aim at acting, while educators aspire to understand. Specifically, when dealing with the drinks industry, Professor Furnham challenged several widely-held views, including the belief that alcohol companies seduce young people. "This has no empirical support," Professor Furnham said. "It is specious."

Concluding his presentation, Professor Furnham claimed that the role of parents in the alcohol consumption of young people in Europe was where the emphasis should be placed. The standard argument, when an advert creates a want, leading to a child-parent conflict, can be supplemented, or even replaced by two alternative approaches, Furnham said. Both of these alternatives have the parents playing a far less negative role, and contributing to the discourse in a more constructive way. Furnham linked the idea of educators and parents providing the solution to the industry's problems. "It is a very complicated issue," he conceded. "But it is not as simple as taxation, legislation and advertising. The evidence is quite clearly in favour of the educationist position, while it is at the parental level that we have to intervene - not at any other."

For an industry-organised event, Professor Furnham's conclusions must have been music to the ears of most delegates. But the argument that alcohol consumption by young people around Europe can be influenced more by parents than legislation or advertising was nothing if not a convincing one. Whether the continent's legislators agree, however, is the million euro question.