Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Every child has the right to grow up safe from alcohol harm

These days, far more drinking takes place in living rooms than pubs, with three quarters of all alcohol in Scotland sold by supermarkets and off-licences.

It’s not surprising given how cheaply alcohol is sold in shops where a bottle of wine can cost the same as one glass in the pub.

This shift to drinking at home also means a shift in where alcohol-related harm takes place. In pubs, staff are trained to monitor drinking and to deal with any problems to keep their customers safe. Standard measures also mean it’s easier to keep track of how much you are drinking. Behind closed doors, it’s a different story. Police and paramedics say more and more of their calls now involve alcohol-related incidents and disturbances in people’s homes. 

Whether it’s parties getting out of hand, arguments turning into violence, illness, accidents and injuries, it’s our emergency services that are called upon to pick up the pieces. Ambulance crews regularly face the threat of violence when attending incidents where alcohol is involved and hundreds of homes are ‘red-flagged’ – considered too dangerous for paramedics to enter without police back-up.

Rather than alcohol being kept for special occasions, it’s become normal to include it as part of the weekly shop and to keep the fridge stocked up. Alcohol has become so embedded in our society that there’s a perception that regular drinking is normal, risk-free, and a good way to de-stress. Of course, none of these are true. Regularly drinking too much increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and mental health problems.

But what impact is this massive shift to drinking at home having on families, in particular, our children? At its most basic, children are more likely to be around alcohol and to witness drunkenness. We might not think children notice how much or how often we, as parents, are drinking but they do. Seeing how we drink is a big influence on our children’s future drinking habits; more so than what we say about alcohol.

Every child in Scotland has the right to grow up safe from alcohol-related harm

Unfortunately more than fifty thousand children in Scotland – at least one child in every single primary school class - are estimated to live with a parent who has an alcohol problem. While every family’s situation is different, children who live with someone who drinks too much say they feel scared, confused, stressed and angry when their parent is drinking. They are also at higher risk of experiencing neglect and domestic violence. They often suffer in silence as they don’t know where to get help or are too scared to speak to someone. Having access to specialist services that support families who need help the most is one of the best ways to improve children’s lives.

Alcohol Focus Scotland has developed creative and practical tools for professionals to help support children and families affected by alcohol. These resources feature animal and child characters who tell stories about how a substance called alcohol affects routines and relationships. The characters encourage children to talk to a trusted adult about their worries and express their emotions rather than keeping things bottled up. The message we want to get across to children is reassurance that they’re not alone and they should never feel they are to blame for their parent or carer’s drinking.

We have found that children instantly relate to the characters in our stories and recognise their own experiences. The resources make a real difference to children’s lives, empowering them to talk about, understand and cope with what may be difficult circumstances in their family. Later this year we will be working with parents to develop a website that will offer support and advice for families worried about alcohol.

But there’s much more that can be done to prevent so many children and families being damaged by alcohol in the first place. All the things that encourage us to drink – cheap prices, easily availability and constant promotions - need to be tackled to reduce consumption and harm. 

One alcohol counsellor who regularly uses our resources with children says the best thing is being able to “help that wee person grow”. Let’s help all wee people in Scotland grow by changing our relationship with alcohol – both individually and as a country.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland