How does drinking culture differ between the US and the UK?

At first glance, the drinking culture here in the US doesn’t seem to differ too much from the one in the UK. Apart from the obvious difference in terms of legal age for alcohol consumption (18 in the UK versus 21 in the US), drinking is drinking, right? Well, not really. Along with the lower drinking age, there come many societal norms and traditions that change the way people perceive alcohol and sometimes, even the way it influences their personality.

Alcohol consumption at University

In the UK, once you turn 18 you are legally allowed to drink, so it comes as no surprise that university binge drinking is a growing concern. In the country that popularized pub crawls, nights of heavy drinking aren’t just commonplace; they’re actually part and parcel of the Uni experience. Studies have shown that more than 40% of University students in the UK are classified as hazardous drinkers and 10% are alcohol dependent. In the US, this percentage is somewhat lower: only 26% of students aged 18 or older confessed to engaging in binge drinking in the past month. But, unlike Britain, which not only is more permissive of drinking, but also encourages it, the US tends to be less understanding. Although somewhat common, underage drinking at university is severely punished, either by the Uni police, or any adult that sees you. Even posting a photo on social media where you are holding a bottle of alcohol can be problematic, so most parties are carefully hidden from their eyes. However, American pre-game drinking culture is more intense. If in the UK warm up just means sipping from a pint and playing video games, in the US pre-game is much more aggressive and drinking games can get pretty competitive.

Authorities in both countries are trying to stop the phenomenon of Uni binge drinking, especially since many students cite peer pressure as one of the reasons they took up drinking in the first place. Nevertheless, that’s easier said than done. Struggling with overwhelming stress levels, students often resort to drinking as a coping mechanism and it doesn’t help that, in the UK, most pubs organize student parties and have special deals for students. Meanwhile, US pubs and bars rarely associate themselves with students, for fear of losing their funding.

The good news is that Gen Z is the least likely generation to drink and they show the lowest levels of alcohol consumption in decades. Even if student binge drinking is hard to eradicate, the fact that many young people are more conscious of their lifestyle choices is a promising start.

Pub culture and social acceptance

If you’ve ever been on vacation in the UK, you’ve probably noticed that pubs are an important part of their culture and any occasion is good for drinking. Since their childhood, Britons grow up with the idea that going to the pub is just a regular, everyday activity and that you don’t need a special occasion to grab a pint. Drinking during the day is also common, and you don’t even have to wait to get to the bar. Since everyone’s doing it, it can’t look bad. This vast social acceptance also leads to subtle nuances in peer pressure. If in the US this manifests as encouragement for the other person to loosen up and have fun, in the UK peer pressure can translate as malicious, sometimes bully behavior towards non-drinkers.

In the US, drinking is more tied to social occasions such as birthdays and get-togethers, and unless it’s for a sporting event, day-drinking is often frowned upon. Pubs and bars also have a different reputation and since they’re not ingrained in national culture, they’re often tacky, sub-par venues that make people party in nightclubs and private rather than in pubs. They also close down earlier and a night of partying typically ends at 3 am, whereas in the UK it can go on until sunrise.

Binge drinking, addiction, and rehab culture

Unfortunately, both the UK and the US experience alarming levels of alcohol abuse. According to the latest statistics, the UK is in the lead, with a 12% alcohol disorder rate, followed by 8% in the US. In comparison, the global average is 4.9%, which calls for urgent measures.

Fortunately, rehab culture has developed significantly in the past years and there is less social stigma around it. It all started as a movement in the US, which created the Minnesota Model. This was the model that advocated for responsible behavior, attending lectures, and following the twelve steps to alcohol recovery. It also launched the theory that addiction is first and foremost a disease and people who suffer from it shouldn’t be punished or banished from society. Instead, they should be treated like any other sick person and receive medical help to support abstinence.

At first, rehab culture was different in the UK and doctors focused less on the cause of this illness and more on treating the symptoms. All of this changed after the Drug Policy 2020 act, and now most clinics in the UK use the modern approach to rehabilitation. This includes traditional medical help, as well as counseling, because addiction is often a symptom caused by anxiety, depression, and trauma.

It’s also worth pointing out that public perception towards rehabilitation differs. Although the concept is no longer surrounded by the same stigma, people in the US are more open about their rehabilitation journeys and display a sense of pride for their sobriety. In the UK, drinking is a major part of national culture, so it’s not uncommon for people who seek rehab to be perceived as elitist.

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