21 Feb 2014

What is problem drinking and how do we tackle it?

Alcohol misuse has been in the news again this week after the latest set of official figures were released - I did a news story on it here and a lot of the main news outlets covered it, including an opinion piece by Owen Jones in the Independent headlined The drug we ignore that kills thousands.

This is such a complex area - beer writer Pete Brown makes the case against the stats and a general clampdown on booze here - that it's notoriously difficult to either a) work out how much of a problem alcohol is in society; and b) if it is a big problem, what to do about it.

People who do drink too much do it in different ways and for different reasons. A well-off pensioner who drinks excessive amounts of fine claret from breakfast onwards every day will have different motivations to a student who gets trashed in clubs every night, who is different again to an unemployed young bloke who drinks heavily at home on a night, and who is different again to a pub regular who downs six or seven pints a night without noticing.

They might all be causing various amounts of harm as well as pleasure, either to themselves or others, so how do you come up with one policy to help them all? Perhaps we need to segment problem drinkers: What are they drinking? Where are they drinking? Why are they drinking?

Do higher prices work? What about the fact that penalises safe drinkers too? Or is education the main thing - if so, how? Do we need a clearer message on units? What is or isn't safe drinking for that matter?

It's such a tricky area, how to reduce alcohol misuse without penalising safe drinkers. And moderate drinking can, of course, be such a positive thing for individuals and society. Studies have suggested it's good for health but, perhaps more importantly, it enriches life - something that's so difficult to quantify. Even drinking at home, you can enhance your wonder of the world through your wine glass. There's the sensual enjoyment, the learning, the conversation, the stress release of just a single glass. How can you ever quantify those benefits for society to offset the harm elsewhere? And then there's the positive benefits of decent pubs to working class communities, as acknowledged by Professor David Nutt:

Drinking habits don't exist in a vacuum: perhaps all the talk of pricing, licensing hours and units is a bit of a red herring. Maybe the best way to curb the most severe problem drinking might well be to deal with wider social issues fuelling it. If people have jobs, and jobs that pay, if people live in warm housing, if they have hope and reason to get up on a morning, if they have more to lose, if they don't feel lonely or bored, won't it be less likely they'll turn to problem drinking? As long as you drink to add flavour to life and not to dull it, you're more likely to keep it under control. That's not to say your drinking can't go from there to becoming a serious problem on an individual level - it can, as it's a powerful drug - but maybe it's less likely.

One last note - I sometimes wonder about the effect of wine costing so much more in restaurants and pubs than in shops. People are trying £20 bottles of wine when eating out and wondering why it tastes no better than a £5 bottle at home. Wine in this country is so, so much cheaper when bought and drunk on its own than with food.

1 comment:

  1. Drinking may have different effects on people. Some may feel elated after having a bottle or two. Others use it to cope up with heavy burdens in their heart. However, the abuse of drinking alcohol is always present whenever a person ingests too much of it. One or two bottles may lead to consecutive nights spent at the bar, wasting away and intoxicating one's self. It may actually be a common sight for a lot of people. And if control can't handle the situation, then maybe it's time to seek professional help. Thanks for sharing! :)

    Scott McKinney