In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions and Dry January, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on our relationship with alcohol as a society – and on the society that we want to live in in the future. In summer 2020, we asked people affected by alcohol harm and professionals working in the sector what they hope our society will look like in 2025, regarding alcohol consumption, harm and treatment. In this blog, Sarah Schoenberger, Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Alcohol Health Alliance, reflects on what we heard, and how we can make it a reality.
When we asked people how they hope our relationship with alcohol will look like in 2025, the answer was simple: a society where alcohol isn’t important anymore. A society where it has become a normal choice not to drink, where there is more awareness of the harm alcohol can cause, and where it is easy to ask for and receive help.
“I hope that alcohol is not as normalised – i.e. where people don’t feel like they’re abnormal for not drinking. I want people to understand that drinking is a choice and to reduce and eliminate the stigma of not drinking and around recovery.”
Currently, alcohol is an accepted, and often expected, part of many of our day-to-day activities and celebrations. Sometimes, it almost seems as if we have to apologise for not drinking. As a woman in my late 20s, there have been too many nights where I have been asked whether I was pregnant – because why else wouldn’t I be drinking? When attempting to explain that I just didn’t feel like drinking, people look at me in a way that says: “what’s wrong with you?”.
At the same time, most of us will know someone who has been affected by harmful drinking. Across the UK, around 80 people die every day because of alcohol. Many more live with the consequences of harmful drinking. One respondent to our survey summed it up rather poignantly: “Even though I drink a little myself, I think our society’s attitudes to alcohol would be seen as perverse and incredibly unhealthy by an alien observer.”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Looking towards 2025, many people in our survey want alcohol to play much less of a role – “people start to understand that alcohol is a root cause to many other health issues. It becomes cool to not drink” – and a society where “being alcohol free is accepted … as a normal choice, not something that makes people think that you have a problem.”
Shifting culture is difficult. We are already seeing some encouraging signs: for example, more and more, especially younger, people decide to drink less or not at all. But there’s more that we – and the government – can do.
Restrict alcohol marketing
One thing to start with would be to restrict the marketing of alcohol. We are all susceptible to advertising, even if we don’t notice it consciously – why else would companies spend billions of pounds on it every year? This also holds true for alcohol: “advertising and supermarkets make alcohol appear glamorous. Even the bottles are made to look appealing and ‘fun’”. There’s also clear evidence that exposure to alcohol marketing makes children more likely to start drinking earlier, and to drink more if they already do.
We’ve seen massive changes in other industries, such as tobacco advertising (do you remember the last time you saw a cigarette ad?), and more recently gambling and junk food advertising. So why is alcohol – an age-restricted product with toxic properties that can lead to health harms, addiction and other immediate risks – left out? If we want to achieve our vision of a society where alcohol plays less of a role, we need to take action on alcohol marketing now.
Further actions the government can take are to require better information on alcohol labels, and to ensure that alcohol doesn’t become ever more affordable.
Better access to information
Currently, we get more product information on a bottle of milk than a bottle of beer. We know that many people still don’t know that alcohol can cause cancer, or that the Chief Medical Officers advise that we shouldn’t drink more than 14 units a week. Alcohol labels seem like the obvious place to put that information so people can make informed choices about what and how much they drink. Many people in our survey also highlighted that we need to raise awareness foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can lead to lifelong consequences for children.
Tackle cheap high-strength alcohol
In England, it is currently possible to buy the weekly 14 units of alcohol for the price of a high street cup of coffee. That’s partly because of the way that alcohol is taxed. Some products, such as strong white cider, pay very little duty, and can thus be sold for just 19p per unit alcohol. The best ways to tackle cheap strong alcohol is by introducing minimum unit pricing – which exists in Scotland and Wales and ensures that no alcohol can be sold for less than 50p per unit – and by reforming the alcohol duty system. A good duty system can protect our health and reduce alcohol harm by ensuring that stronger drinks are always taxed more, per unit alcohol, and that the overall rate of duty covers the costs of alcohol to society. Currently, it only covers about half of that.
All of this will help shift our attitude, away from something that is a normal and glamourised commodity to something that does not have to be part of our lives if we don’t choose so.
Most importantly though, we need to make it normal for people to talk about the harm they experience from alcohol. In our survey, 60% of people felt that it should be a top priority for government to ensure that people feel comfortable asking for help with alcohol use and don’t have to feel ashamed or fear losing their reputation or career.
We’ve come a long way with mental health awareness. It is much easier today to get support than it was ten years ago, and many workplaces have mental health awareness training and policies. However, alcohol and addiction have been left behind. By 2025, we want to live in a society where “anyone who needs help – whether that’s treatment or advice – feels comfortable accessing it, can find it easily and it’s not inaccessible.”
Be part of a movement
At the AHA, we are working hard to reduce the harm alcohol causes to individuals and their communities. You can join us. Now more than ever, we need to be fighting fit and looking to reduce any unnecessary burden on the NHS and emergency services – such as those caused by alcohol.
Sign up to become an AHA campaigner and help us reduce alcohol harm.
Written by Sarah Schoenberger
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available to you. Speak with your GP about what support might be available to you or someone you are concerned about. This is a great first step in finding help.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Calls are free and confidential. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9.00am to 8.00pm, weekends 11.00am to 4.00pm).
More information about organisations which offer help and support can be found on the Alcohol Change UK website.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.