DDN’s monthly column offering a platform for a range of diverse views


Quality not quantity

The drink debate has become stuck on quantity. Why can’t we acknowledge that booze is a part of our lives and have an intelligent discussion about harm reduction, asks Andy Stonard

Drinking alcohol in Britain has again become a perilous pastime. There have been periods in history when the people have drunk more – much more, in fact – and there have been periods of time when drinking levels have fallen because of laws or circumstance, such as the 1914-18 Great War.

Our overall consumption has decreased slightly in recent years, but alcohol-related ill health is climbing alarmingly. So there is something seriously wrong.

We need to consider the drinking of alcohol in relation to individual drinking patterns, our behaviour, our culture and our attitudes. We cannot just talk about quantity and arrange our policies and public education around quantity. It’s about discussing Alcohol UK – how its people consume alcohol, how alcohol relates to ill health, social disorder and violence, child care and domestic violence. Our social and moral frameworks are all framed within our drinking and how we drink.

Drinking for some is an occasional pleasure. For many it forms a significant part of their social and personal lifestyle. Then for a large number of people it has become an essential aspect of life – drinking as an integral daily activity. 

For up to two million people it is a daily occupation, often from the moment of waking until the end of the day, encompassing psychological and physical dependence. For this group and some of the above, drinking and alcohol-related problems sweep through and affect loved ones and family, neighbours and friends, work colleagues, as well as strangers on streets and in bars.

Alcohol consumption is a significant factor in domestic violence and child abuse, in violent incidents and in accidents on the roads, in the workplace and in the home. The NHS services (especially A&E), GP surgeries, the police service and the courts are often overwhelmed with drunkenness and the accompanying chaos. We know all this of course. Such statistics appear regularly in our newspapers and other media.

Against this reality we have a range of political and economic commentaries on how best to tackle this from the government, but with no action and never anything concrete. The drinks industry advertises and promotes brands and sells alcoholic beverages very successfully. The supermarkets sell vast amounts of discounted lager and wines as part of their marketing strategies. Local corner shops have to have a licence to sell alcohol or go out of business.

On the other hand, the British Medical Association (BMA) and health lobby, the police and local authorities all caution against the wave of alcohol-related ill health and harm. Our hospital services are overrun, while whole city centres are drunk, with serious disorders and violence, often on the brink of major confrontations and disaster.

And what about our politicians? Our members of parliament have historically offered nothing coherent and their views and opinions usually divide equally into three. One third will stand up for freedom of choice for the consumer and free trade for the industry – because it suits them as shareholders, or directors, or as members of parliament of a constituency with brewing and distilling interests as donators to party funds and so forth. Another third will be talking about public health because of their interests; and the third will ignore the debate.

Why change the status quo? For the aforementioned combatants, it is a good living working for either side; for the government it is a massive earner and, anyway, the people of the UK like a drink and getting drunk. No one forces anyone to drink. We all have free will.

No one wakes up one morning and decides to have a drink problem, to be an alcoholic. For many it is a slow journey over years. For others it is an unfortunate accident or incident. For some, alcohol covers up anxiety; a drink makes socialising easier and for many of us it becomes a daily habit – a bottle of wine at home, a weekend drinking with friends, the pub after work. It builds, it wanes, it builds again.

How do we even try to address such a widespread issue? My starting point is that I have yet to meet or hear a politician prepared to do anything about it, so we all need to look to ourselves and one another. We need to understand our own attitudes to drinking alcohol, what these attitudes are, how they have been formed and how others’ beliefs and attitudes impact on each of us. 

Unless there is a cultural shift across our entire society and its institutions and, most importantly, its people and our attitudes and beliefs, then all the tampering of pricing policy, licensing and moral panics will continue to be like pissing in the wind.

Andy Stonard has spent most of his career in alcohol treatment and charities and is former chief executive of Rugby House. His new book, A Glass Half Full: Alcohol Harm Reduction, is available on Amazon