Are cost of living pressures placing UK adults at greater risk of alcohol dependence?

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

In this blog, With You explores how the cost of living is impacting peoples’ priorities when purchasing alcohol, and the changes to where people are drinking.

The rising cost of living is having a significant impact on the people we work with. It has exposed society’s fragility, and for many of us, we will be experiencing some of the most challenging circumstances of our lives.

At With You, we wanted to better understand the impact of the rising cost of living on the people who use our services.

We carried out a series of focus groups with our staff, as well as polling with over 2,000 UK adults over a week in February 2023. Our research highlighted changes to how people are drinking, and the impact of mental health issues and financial pressures on people’s relationship with alcohol. We focused on alcohol specifically because it is very widely available and is the most commonly used substance among UK adults. Equivalent research into the use of illegal drugs would have required a more nuanced exploration such as breakdowns by drug type and region, age, and demographic. You can listen to Stephen McCulloch, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications, speak more about our findings here on BBC Radio Cornwall (approx. 22 minutes 37 seconds).

More people are drinking as a coping mechanism

We heard how financial pressures related to the rising cost of living (and the isolation felt post-covid) are having a negative impact on peoples’ mental health, and this is leading to increased alcohol consumption. The most common reason we heard for people’s increased drinking was because it had become a coping mechanism. We heard how people are struggling with increased anxiety about money and not being able to make ends meet. Alcohol has become an increasingly common way for people to deal with the pressures they are experiencing due to the realities of the cost of living crisis.

This echoes what we are seeing across many of our services. Some of our services have seen significant increases in the number of people looking for support for their alcohol use over the last six months with one service seeing a 70% increase in referrals over this period We also found from our public polling that more than 10% of the population have been prioritising the purchase of alcohol over essential items. One community engagement coordinator told us “When we’re doing our assessment we’re asking: ‘When do you feel like this became a dependency?’ and there is a lot saying it’s the cost of living and the financial pressures… it’s a coping mechanism.”

In our polling, we found over a third of UK adults drink more alcohol when they feel anxious, depressed, or isolated. This can lead to a worrying cycle where people drink to alleviate their issues, but will likely only make them worse in the long run. Regularly drinking alcohol can be detrimental to mental wellbeing in a number of ways, including impacting the sleep cycle. Alcohol relaxes muscles in the body which can make it feel like it aids sleep, but in reality it prevents the body from going into the restorative rest (REM) it needs to allow someone to wake up feeling refreshed.

More people are drinking at home, on their own, to save money

The increased cost of living has compounded many of the pressures that first emerged during the pandemic and lockdowns, including mental health issues and increased isolation. Our research found more people are turning to cheaper, supermarket bought alcohol to deal with these problems, often drinking alone at home. More than half (56%) of the people we surveyed said they now bought alcohol from supermarkets due to the rising cost of living, with almost a quarter (23%) of people reporting that they are choosing cheaper drinks at the supermarket.

“It’s cheaper to buy 4 to 6 cans from a supermarket than buy drinks out. People are drinking more at home. The ones who used to go to the pub for the social aspect are now drinking more in their house.” Recovery Worker

There is also evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on people’s drinking habits. We found that two fifths of UK adults (42%) are more comfortable drinking alcohol alone than they were a year ago, and just under half of UK adults (47%) said they are drinking alcohol at home more than before due to the rising cost of living.

We know that cheaper alcohol brands can often be lower in quality and higher in alcohol, however 46% of people we surveyed said they weren’t aware of this. Offers and deals at the supermarket can also make it tempting to buy alcohol in bulk. Whilst this may be cheaper, it makes it easy to drink more than planned and increases the likelihood of someone drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in a short amount of time. Our survey found over one in 10 UK adults (13%) agree they drink excessive quantities of alcohol in a short amount of time rather than moderate drinking.

For people looking for help reducing their drinking, in particular at home, we recommend buying less in each shop: for example, swap a six pack of beer for a four pack. That way, it isn’t possible to drink more than planned. In addition, when drinking at home, it’s easy to pour bigger drinks than would be served at a pub or bar. This can make it hard to cut down or monitor intake. Instead, we recommend measuring each drink when pouring. We also advise that having an extra drink-free day each week gives the body more time to recover. Alternating between alcohol and non alcoholic drinks controls alcohol intake, and may well also save money.

In our next blog in this series, we will explore our findings around accessing treatment, and how we can encourage more people who need it to seek support with their alcohol use.

This blog was originally published by With You. You can read the original post here.

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