When I tell someone that I’m 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 a drink but we also disassociate ourselves from some of the more problematic aspects. Many of us stock arguments to reassure ourselves that our own drinking is OK.
“Everyone else is drinking the same as me, if not more.”
But do we realise how much we are drinking? People tend to underestimate the amount they consume. We often don’t know how many units are in our drinks, and many of us aren’t aware of recommended guidelines.
“The amount I drink is normal.”
It’s clear that drinking alcohol is viewed as ‘normal’ but the damage that it causes is underplayed because drinking is so socially acceptable.
Alcohol is a toxic substance that can create dependence and cause serious health and social problems. Just because we don’t want to hear that something we enjoy carries health risks doesn’t alter the evidence – there is no completely safe level of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is linked to 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 drink less than ever, although those who do drink are drinking more. It’s those in middle age who drink most and suffer the biggest health problems. Whilst education has a role, research tells us that it only works in combination with other measures, such as increasing the price, reducing availability, and restricting marketing.
“My kids aren’t affected by my drinking.”
Kids are more aware of what parents are up to than we realise. Our attitudes to alcohol are likely to help inform theirs. But alcohol can also get in the way of spending time with our kids and giving them attention. Where as a result of drinking our behaviour changes or becomes unpredictable, this may cause anxiety or upset.
“Health groups should 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 drink. When making that decision, everyone has the right to know what is in their drink, and what the risks are. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Onlyone in 10 people are aware of the link between cancer and drinking too much, and a recent audit has found that only one out of 315 products contained up-to-date drinking guidelines on the label. Without all of this information, it is almost impossible to make an informed decision.
Without the right information and healthy environments within which to make our choices, our behaviours are influenced by marketing and ready availability of alcohol.
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. They have recently been found to misrepresent evidence about alcohol and the risk of cancer, borrowing from tobacco company tactics to deny the evidence, confuse and distract consumers.
“Making alcohol more expensive or changing how it’s advertised won’t make any difference, Scots will always have a problem with alcohol.”
It is disheartening to hear that Scots are so resigned and accepting of alcohol harm. By tackling cheap, available and heavily marketed alcohol, we can all benefit. 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 the equivalent of 48 bottles of vodka, or 124 bottles of wine. Alcohol is one of Scotland’s biggest killers: 24 people a week die due to alcohol.
Often people reveal how alcohol has touched their own lives in some way, whether they’ve had problems themselves or seen the consequences of harmful drinking. 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. 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. 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 “Is it worth it?”
Alison Douglas, chief executive, Alcohol Focus Scotland.