Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Time for honest conversations about alcohol

When I tell someone I haven’t met before that I’m the Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, it’s amazing how many people get defensive about how much they drink. 

Most of us - including me - like to have a drink but we also like to disassociate ourselves from some of the more problematic aspects of drinking. There are certain stock arguments many of us turn to, to reassure ourselves that our own drinking is okay. 

“Everyone else is drinking the same as me, if not more.” 

But do we realise how much we are drinking? When responding to surveys, people tend to under-estimate the amount that they consume. We often don’t know how many units are in our drinks, and many of us aren’t aware of the recommended drinking guidelines.

“The amount I drink is normal.” 

It’s clear that drinking alcohol is viewed as a ‘normal’ part of society but the damage that it causes is under-estimated or under-played because drinking is so socially acceptable. At the end of the day, alcohol is a toxic substance that can create dependence and causes serious health and social problems. Just because we don’t want to hear that something we enjoy carries health risks doesn’t alter the scientific evidence - there is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is linked to a wide range of diseases and conditions including breast and bowel cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and mental health problems.

“It’s young folk that are the problem. We need to be educating kids about alcohol in schools.” 

Young people are drinking less than ever before, although those who do drink are drinking more. It’s those of us in middle age who are drinking most and suffering the biggest health problems. And, whilst education has a role, the research tells us that it only works in combination with other measures, such as increasing the price, reducing the availability, and restricting the marketing of alcohol.  

“My kids aren’t affected by my drinking.” 

Kids are far more aware of what their parents are up to than we realise.  At a minimum our attitudes and behaviours to alcohol are likely to help shape theirs. But alcohol can also get in the way of us spending time with our kids and giving them our full attention. In other instances, where as a result of drinking our behaviour changes or becomes unpredictable, this may cause them anxiety or upset.

“Government and health groups like you should just butt out – how much I drink is up to me.” 

Assuming we are not harming anyone else, each of us needs to make up our own minds whether and how much we want to drink. When making that decision, everyone has the right to know what is in their drink, and what the risks are of consuming it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen at the moment. For example, only 1 in 10 people are aware of the link between cancer and drinking too much, and a recent audit has found that only 1 out of 315 products contained the up-to-date drinking guidelines on its label.  Without all of this information, it is almost impossible to make an informed decision on our drinking. 

Without the right information and healthy environments within which to make our choices, our behaviours are influenced by the heavy marketing and ready availability of alcohol, driven by global alcohol producers.  The alcohol industry and the ‘responsible drinking’ bodies they fund, such as Drinkaware, are constantly working to protect their profits by keeping us in the dark about the health risks of drinking.  They have recently been found to misrepresent the evidence about alcohol and the risk of cancer, borrowing from the tactics of tobacco companies to deny the evidence, confuse and distract consumers.  

“Making alcohol more expensive or changing how it’s advertised won’t make any difference, us Scots will always have a problem with alcohol.” 

It is disheartening to hear that people in Scotland are so resigned and accepting of alcohol harm, even when the evidence is clear that changes can be made. By tackling the cheap, readily available and heavily marketed alcohol, we can all benefit. 

Let’s not kid ourselves – Scotland has a problem with alcohol.  Even though more of us describe ourselves as non-drinkers, those of us who do drink are drinking more. Last year, enough alcohol was sold in Scotland for each drinker to have drunk the equivalent of 48 bottles of vodka, or 124 bottles of wine. When consuming this amount, it’s no surprise that alcohol is one of Scotland’s biggest killers: 24 people a week die due to alcohol. 

Often as the conversation continues, people reveal how alcohol has touched their own lives in some way, whether they’ve had problems with alcohol themselves or seen the consequences of harmful drinking on other people in their lives.  It may be growing up with a parent who was emotionally absent due to drink; it may be a relationship that broke down due to a partner’s drinking; or it may be the loss of a family member due to alcohol. The fact is that half of us say we’ve been harmed by another person’s drinking.

We need to have grown-up, open conversations about alcohol, and tackle the myths that we hear on a daily basis. We need to be honest with ourselves about how much we are drinking and to discuss what is driving us to drink. It’s time we recognised the true cost of our drinking culture and asked ourselves “Is it worth it?”  

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland