The alcohol industry has long used the message ‘drink responsibly’ when promoting its products. But what does this phrase even mean? In this blog, Colin Shevills, Special Adviser to the Alcohol Health Alliance, argues why we need to take public health messaging out of the hands of the alcohol industry and call time on the ‘drink responsibly’ message.
Do you drink responsibly? I thought so – me too. In fact, in a recent survey of public opinion carried out by Balance, nine in 10 drinkers in the North East of England described themselves as ‘responsible.’
So if drinking responsibly is the answer to the problem of alcohol harm – as the alcohol industry would have us believe – and most of us are responsible drinkers, why are we seeing increasing levels of death and illness associated with consuming our favourite legal drug?
There is no doubt that the alcohol harm figures are looking alarming, with death linked to alcohol up 20% in England and Wales in 2020 and a recent study showing that high risk drinking amongst all adults had increased during the first COVID-19 lockdown.
Could it be that calling for people to ‘drink responsibly’ is not the answer? That it is a meaningless phrase designed to suit the commercial interests of the alcohol industry rather than address the public health needs of the nation?
All of us are familiar with the phrase. It is in everyday use and appears on virtually every alcohol product label and advertisement. And that’s the problem. The term ‘drinking responsibly’ is used by the alcohol industry as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes to frame alcohol use in a way which is helpful to their commercial aspirations.
Think about it. The industry rarely if ever defines what they mean by the term. We are left to make our own minds up. The problem is that many drinkers believe that as long as they don’t lose control or hurt others, they are drinking responsibly.
The figures from the Balance survey perfectly illustrate the point. Not only do 90% of all drinkers believe they consume alcohol responsibly, but 83% of those drinking at risky levels also class themselves as ‘responsible.’ Even a third of those who describe themselves as ‘heavy’ drinkers believe they are drinking responsibly.
With ‘responsibility’ left up to individual interpretation, all the message is saying to these high-risk drinkers is ‘keep doing what you are doing.’ The problem is that their current drinking patterns are putting them at greater risk of a range of health conditions associated with drinking alcohol, including heart disease, stroke and seven different types of cancer.
The alcohol industry could use the phrase alongside the low-risk drinking guidelines of no more than 14 units a week. They choose not to. In fact, in a report published by the Alcohol Health Alliance just over 12 months ago, 70% of alcohol product labels failed to include the Government’s low risk drinking guidelines over three years after they were updated.
One reason could be that alcohol industry-profits are to a large extent reliant on people drinking at risky levels. A review carried out in 2013/14 found that the alcohol industry in England would see their income fall by £13 billion a year if everyone consumed within the low-risk drinking guidelines.
The phrase has another benefit for the industry. If most of us believe we are drinking responsibly, it follows that the problems caused by alcohol can be attributed to a small minority of irresponsible individuals. It allows the industry and its supporters to claim that more effective harm reduction measures such as duty increases, minimum unit price and restrictions in advertising are an overreaction.
Instead it promotes education and ‘responsible drinking’ campaigns which independent evidence suggests are less effective in reducing harm – and less likely to hit industry profits.
It has another worrying consequence, one highlighted by Baroness Finlay in the Commission on Alcohol Harm 2020 report. In effect, the industry is blaming the problems of alcohol harm on ‘irresponsible individuals’ and, as a result, this leads to feelings of stigma and shame amongst those who need help.
As one expert by experience told the commission, stigma can make people feel as if : “I’m worthless. I’m not worthy of treatment. I’m not worthy of support.”
For the sake of people who need help – and for those running the risk of a range of health harms – we need to take public health messaging out of the hands of the alcohol industry. We need to call time on the ‘drink responsibly’ message.
Instead, the Government should be listening to those independent experts calling for a new alcohol strategy that tackles the affordability, availability and promotion of alcohol and makes more money available to fund specialist treatment services. And one that puts resources into public health messages developed by public health experts.
Written by Colin Shevills
If you are worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, there is help available.
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).
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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.