Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Making a bad impression - blog post

David Robertson joined Alcohol Focus Scotland as our new new Senior Policy Development Coordinator with a remit for pursuing an alcohol-free childhood. Here he blogs about his initial insights into the concept of an alcohol-free childhood.

It was odd to discover just how much I am part of Scotland’s drinking culture. I actually don’t drink much myself – perhaps three or four units a month and yet until I started at Alcohol Focus Scotland I did not fully appreciate how much I took for granted in terms of what I tolerated, accepted or ignored. Obviously I have been exposed to comparisons between alcohol and tobacco and known that about the 4000 deaths per year are attributed to alcohol, that alcohol related harms costs us around £3.6bn per year; the big impact stats.

What I have become aware of in my first month is just how pervasive are the messages to drink within our culture and how we, collectively, make excuses for the ubiquity of those messages and the “must make room for alcohol” messages.  A recent trip to a certificate 15 film provided a count of five ads for alcohol and that was after the stall at the ticket-check which was selling prosecco on special offer. Cinemas never used to have alcohol licences, there has been a steady creep in both visibility and availability of alcohol in recent years. I just noticed!

As someone who has taught health education in school, what else has passed me by?

The degree to which children are impacted by alcohol imagery is quite astounding. Compare that with the now invisibility of tobacco! The Children’s Parliament are working on a report detailing what children see and feel about alcohol. Children talked about how they see alcohol from breakfast (when they open the fridge in the morning), through the school commute (street posters, bus ads and shop windows) to grocery shopping (aisles packed with products) to adverts on the TV and parents sitting with a beer at home.

Children's Parliament visit with PH minister

Like many Scots I was brought up in a household where it was felt appropriate to introduce teens to alcohol on a gradual basis. The idea behind this seems logical. By having teens witness parents and family drinking alcohol in a responsible manner and experiencing alcohol in a safe home environment, teens will learn to drink responsibly. Whilst many would agree that this cultural transmission of responsible drinking has stood the test of time, the evidence points in a different direction. Evidence shows that children and young people who frequently witness alcohol consumption as normal practice have an increased risk of consuming greater quantities of alcohol and at a younger age.

Perhaps I was less surprised to discover the research that shows that the earlier children are introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to exhibit problem drinking in later life. What children see when they see adults drink is not necessarily what we hope they see. Children report increasing worry, concern and embarrassment in line with increases in very moderate drinking. Children do not seem to differentiate between seeing parents tipsy and drunk. Parents often assume that their children do not notice their drinking but children can say why adults drink; to feel happier, to relax, to help cope with a hard day to get over a long day with the kids. This is the learning they take into adulthood. Is that what we would wish?

So, over the next year I shall be working to ensure greater awareness of the impact that alcohol marketing has on children, so that the need to limit that impact is taken account of in legislation.

AFS will be facilitating a national discussion on the way children can be affected by other people’s drinking, even at low-risk levels.

More on all this in my next blog. To get in touch with David email