Our relationship with alcohol

Today an article from WHO about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world has got people all fired up on social media. The article has slightly clumsy wording about prevention of harm to unborn babies from alcohol, that some people have interpreted as a recommendation to prevent women of child bearing age from being allowed to drink. In response people have jumped in as much to defend/normalise drinking as to stick up for women’s rights (and to rightly criticise the way certain other types of risks from alcohol are only mentioned by reference to other documents, such as the risk of interpersonal violence, or not mentioned at all, such as the risk of perpetrating or becoming a victim of sexual assault). Having tried to reply on twitter but ended up with a mega-thread, I thought it might be preferable to respond fully in a blog post about our relationship to alcohol, including some links to relevant psychological theory.

Before I begin, I should note that I’m not an unbiased observer on this topic. For the last 30 years or so, I have chosen to drink very little alcohol (typically about 5 units per year) as I don’t particularly like the taste of most alcoholic drinks, or the way I feel after the effects have worn off. I also had a very negative experience of being drunk early in my life (see this blog entry, which comes with a trigger warning about sexual assault). That led me to often choose to be the driver or the person who stayed sober on nights out, which also gave me a rather atypical perspective on alcohol – as I was often the person who was looking after the person who had puked up or passed out, or was vulnerable to sexual assault. Speaking of which, I have previously expressed some strong opinions about whether alcohol is an excuse for behaviour (it isn’t; blog also deals with sexual assualt).

So, I am fully on board with the criticism that any global policy about alcohol needs to mention its association with interpersonal violence and sexual assault. We know that drugs and alcohol are often the source of disinhibition for abusers (and can be a step used in overcoming inhibitions for those who feel guilt or social pressure, such as in Finkelhor’s model of factors neceesary for child sexual abuse to occur). We also know that they are often used to create vulnerability in victims (eg with use of drugs in alcoholic drinks by rapists like John Warboys and Reynhard Sinaga) and that the vulnerability of intoxication is frequently exploited as an opportunity for sexual assault. As BPAS say in their response to the document “In the UK alone, more than a third of sexual assaults, more than 39% of all violent crimes, and nearly 1 in 5 incidents of domestic abuse are committed under the influence of alcohol” and this clearly needs to be mentioned in a document about reducing the harm caused by alcohol around the world, more than by passing references to other WHO documents about violence.

However, I’m also someone that believes in preventative and health promotion interventions like schemes to provide healthy food for pregnant women and young children, or the tax on sugary drinks. So it should come as no surprise that I’m broadly in support of measures to reduce problem/excessive drinking and tackle the culture of binge drinking amongst young people. I think a minimum price per unit of alcohol, and more education about alcohol (and drugs) and their risks and benefits would be a good starting point. This should ideally be part of the national curriculum for children, and something that is revisited at developmentally appropriate levels.

So, with my general opinions laid out, let us return to today’s publication. The WHO document is called “Global alcohol action plan 2022-2030 to strengthen implementation of the Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol” and is clearly marked as a first draft. The statement that has been perceived as controversial is that they recommend we “raise awareness among decision-makers and the general public about the risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption. Appropriate attention should be given to… prevention of drinking among pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

To state something I hope would be obvious: Taking a literal interpretation of this sentence to mean that all women of fertile age should be prevented from drinking alcohol would be ridiculous and awful. I strongly agree with the critics that women are more than just breeding vessels, and that it would be massively disproportionate and set back women’s rights to prevent all women of fertile age from drinking on the basis of potential harm to a foetus. There are many complex and interwoven issues here, the way that gender and fertility have been conflated ignores the presence of anyone trans, intersex or with any of numerous medical conditions that can create infertility. It also assumes that all women are sexually active and none are using contraception or taking any control over their ability to conceive. Taken literally this therefore extends guidance that is perfectly logical for sexually active women who are fertile and not using contraception to every person identifying as female under the age of 50. However, I hope is a thoughtless omission in their wording rather than the intended meaning. It also assumes that any consumption of alcohol at any stage of the pregnancy is potentially harmful to a foetus, which does not appear to be entirely supported by science (where to the best of my current knowledge it would appear that low consumptions of alcohol have not been associated with harm and there are particular windows during pregnancy in which harm to the developing foetus is more or less likely to occur). Thus advice to avoid excessive or chronic consumption of alcohol during pregnancy appears to have been extrapolated into advice for all women of fertile age to consume no alcohol at all. And that clearly needs to be clarified as this first draft is developed into the final published document.

However, I genuinely don’t think that is the intended meaning here. The document doesn’t mention the rights of the foetus being more important than those of the mother as some critics have inferred (in fact it doesn’t even use the word foetus). Nor does it call for bans on the sale of alcohol to women (in fact it doesn’t even expand on the topic of female alcohol use at all). It only uses the word “women” four times, twice in that sentence, once in relation to mortality and once when talking about the incidence of alcohol use disorders. It literally just says the one sentence I quoted above.

I can see that the wording of the relevant sentence is slightly clumsy, perhaps because of international authors, but It is my belief having read the full guidance that this document is not advocating an unreasonable curtailment of the freedoms of women. Whilst it mentions “prevention” of women drinking, this is in a section entitled “Advocacy, awareness and commitment”. It is written in the context of preventing harm by reducing the social pressures encouraging excessive drinking and providing information about risks that would lead to informational campaigns discouraging children and pregnant women from drinking. It is not an assault on feminism or suggesting that states increase authoritarianism.

And importantly, this isn’t a personal message to individual female readers. It isn’t some jumped up know-it-all judging you for having glass of wine or two in the evening to unwind. It is a draft policy statement proposing educating people around the world about the risks of drinking whilst pregnant in the hope that more women choose to abstain. If you are past menopause, or not sexually active, or use contraception, or drink little/no alcohol, or for any of a myriad of other reasons aren’t going to end up binge drinking before realising you are pregnant, this message to reduce or cease alcohol consumption is not for you. You can let go the anticipated reproach and stand down.

Whilst the tabloids are trying to make this into a big deal, this fits with their xenophobic British exceptionalism agenda, whereby they are dismissive of international bodies, experts and science and try to frame them as limiting personal freedom and autonomy. So when they use stories like this to fuel the “nanny state curtails our rights, its political correctness gone mad” narrative, remember that each of these little fires is built to distract from the way the government are slowly attacking our rights and the safeguards over their power like the right to call for judicial review of government actions, GDPR and the protection of our data from commercial exploitation. Like the fantasy that conservative voices are being cancelled/silenced by an oversensitive generation of woke snowflakes rather than that market forces mean racists and sexists are increasingly feeling the rightful consequences of their repugnant views, or the way that taking the knee to acknowledge racism exists and needs to be tackled has become some unpatriotic politicising of football, this is just a distraction technique. These stories distract from the unlawful crony contracts that have funnelled public funds to friends of cabinet members, the way politicians no longer resign when they are found to have been dishonest, the failure of Brexit, growing inequality, the mess they have made of the pandemic and all the other ways the Overton window has shifted right and the current pack of corrupt incompetents are making a mess of governing the nation.

I think the best way to look objectively at the issue here is to let go of the wording and look at the overall tone of the message. WHO advisors are trying to reduce rates of death, disability and children harmed by foetal alcohol exposure. Surely that is a good thing? It is directly parallel to trying to prevent cancers/disease and harm to others from smoking (including during pregnancy or around young children) – something that was socially acceptable until surprisingly recently. Smoking is (or at least was) another choice that some people find enjoyable, but scientific studies associated with excess mortality. If we saw a publication warning women about smoking harming an unborn child it would probably not immediately make people want to post “oh just reading this makes me want to smoke a whole box of cigarettes”. So I wonder, objectively, why a twitter post replying to the report saying “I’m not sure where to start with this. Maybe by opening a bottle of wine?” has received so many likes?

For context: Alcohol causes 3 million premature deaths a year – that is more than tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and diabetes. This includes 13.5% of all deaths among 20 to 39-year-olds in the world. In Russia and eastern Europe, nearly a third of people’s lives are shortened by alcohol use, though the rate in the UK is about 3.4%. In the USA research shows that alcohol contributes to about 18.5 percent of emergency room visits and 22.1 percent of overdose deaths related to prescription opioids. Around the world about 1.4% of people are considered to have an alcohol use disorder, with the highest prevalence in Russia and neighbouring states, where it is about 5%, and Brazil and Greenland, where it is about 3%. In America the diagnostic rate is higher (at about 5%), but it is unclear whether the prevalence is higher or the thresholds for diagnosis are lower. Globally, alcohol use disorders lead to 185,000 deaths per year, with around 2300 in the UK. This number has increased considerably since the 1990s, but has been fairly steady for the past 15 years. Few of these people receive formal treatment, with only 5-6% getting treatment in the UK. The incidence of alcohol use disorders increases significantly for those with mental health problems, showing that either the same stressors can lead to both outcomes, or that mental health problems can increase the risk of alcoholism or vice versa.

Problematic alcohol use can either take the form of binge drinking – where the drinking is excessive in quantity, but happens intermittently, perhaps once or twice a week, or on particular occasions or where the individual gets together with a particular social group – or chronic and excessive consumption (where the individual drinks every or almost every day over a protracted period of time). Both patterns are surprisingly common.

About 25% of the population meet the criteria for binge drinking on surveys about alcohol consumption, whilst around 7% report heavy drinking (5 or more units per day on 5 or more days during the last month). Even within geographic regions, there is a high level of variation between countries: in Italy, only 6 percent of drinkers had a heavy episode of drinking during the past month in contrast to nearly half in Ireland; 42 percent in Belgium one-third in the UK and France; and 20 percent in Spain. Binge drinking is particularly common amongst students and young adults, with around 50% of those who have ever drunk alcohol reporting in surveys they had drunk to the point of blacking out at least once, and 10% reporting a blackout associated with drinking in the prior two weeks. If some of those young women are becoming pregnant (perhaps due to sexual encounters when intoxicated), that level of drinking could potentially be a significant risk factor for the unborn babies.

Drinking alcohol to excess can also lead to other additional risks for the drinker. Whilst the immediate effects of alcohol are usually perceived as pleasant, and resolve fairly quickly when drinking stops, they can lead to memory lapses, poor judgements and an increased risk of accident and injury (as well an increased risk of sexual assault). Blackouts can involve potentially dangerous behaviour and loss of consciousness. Binge drinking is known to increase the risk of medical crises, and is a significant contributor to the number of people who present at A&E. Studies show that compared with people who did not binge drink, people who drank alcohol at twice the recommended thresholds were 70 times more likely to have an alcohol-related A&E visit, and those who drank three times as much as the recommended limit were 93 times more likely to present there.

Alcohol also presents other less acute risks of harm. The effects of alcohol on the body become more severe with larger volumes consumed over extended periods of time – with particular risk to the liver, heart and brain. Changes to the brain can eventually disrupt memory and lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome. Alcohol is also physically addictive, with greater risks associated with sudden withdrawal than most drugs.

There are no hard and fast rules, but chronic excessive use appears to follow a different pattern to binge drinking, which is typically social – perhaps because the cost of alcohol in quantity soon prohibits this being consumed at pubs and clubs, or because of the pattern of drinking, or the impact of the level of intoxication on social functioning. The reality of problem drinking is, like most things in life, a bit more complicated than simply being the upper section of a spectrum of consumption. It seems to have some biological components, marked social components (eg when alcohol is used to cope with social situations or fit with peers) and is often cumulative over time. As with most addictions serious alcohol issues are often rooted in combinations of learnt behaviour and exposure to trauma. Impoverished or abusive relationships in childhood set a harmful template that can lead to dysfunctional coping strategies and relationships later on. These can create patterns that reinforce problem drinking, and masking the drinking can disrupt supportive relationships.

However, it is not just in the context of alcohol misuse disorders that alcohol causes harm and excess mortality. Alcohol also increases mortality via road traffic accidents. In South Africa and Papua New Guinea more than half of all traffic deaths are attributable to alcohol consumption. In the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and many European countries alcohol is responsible for around a third of all traffic deaths. Alcohol is also implicated in more than half of all crimes in the UK – either because the crime involves alcohol (eg drink driving, drunk and disorderly, theft of alcohol) or because the person committing the crime had consumed alcohol (eg in violent crime, assault or criminal damage). This is higher than elsewhere in the world where this has been studied.

Alcohol also causes Foetal Alcohol conditions that can have a lifelong impact on the brain. NICE say the exact incidence is unknown, but it was thought that about 7.7 people per 1,000 worldwide are affected, and 32.4 per 1,000 population in the UK. A study following up a cohort of births looking at possible symptoms suggested the prevalence could be as much as 6 to 17% of the population. The official UK advice is that the safest approach for women who are pregnant is not to drink alcohol to minimise risks to a baby. However, multiple sources suggest that 41% of pregnant women in the UK consume alcohol, and research shows women are not universally given information about the risks of alcohol during pregnancy (with 30% of those who drank before pregnancy reporting getting no information on this topic from maternity services, and only 29% of midwives saying they routinely share this information). The messages about how much alcohol is safe are unclear. There is a consensus from the stakeholders that NICE consulted that education and raising awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol in pregnancy is necessary, and 91% of alcohol bottles sold in the UK now warn against drinking during pregnancy. So it should be no surprise that the WHO also feel that women around the world who are pregnant or who may become pregnant (because they are of fertile age and are having sex without contraception) need to be aware of the risk posed to a baby by excessive alcohol consumption. Reducing alcohol consumption in these groups will reduce harm.

Yet as soon as reduced consumption of alcohol is mentioned, it brings out an almost reflexive response. I think some of that is “anticipated reproach” – the defensive (but often antagonistic) response people have to anyone they feel may judge them negatively, which can sometimes be combined with “do-gooder derogation” the feeling that anyone taking the higher moral ground about an issue personally, or taking action to resolve it, must be pompous and judgemental. Anticipated reproach has been studied by Benoit Monin, who has shown the effect in relation to everything from vegans to racism. We can see that playing out in the response to this WHO report. People want to speak out for their right to consume alcohol, and don’t perceive it as harmful (except in others with obviously excessive drinking).

The pandemic has also conflated unrestricted access to alcohol with the idea of personal freedom and agency. Closing pubs has been seen as more of an imposition on our rights than closing schools – particularly for the vocal anti-mask/anti-vax brigade (I wonder if there is some overlap between views about pub-drinking and a rejection of broader progressive values? It certainly seems to be associated with covid denial, Brexit-voting, and dismissal of expert advice, which I associate with a kind of disenchanted malaise that comes from underachievement and a feeling of being cheated by the changing social contract that makes people vulnerable to alt-right propaganda).

But I think this positive and normalising view of alcohol long predates the more recent changes to the socio-political environment, and the increasing polarisation of society. Alcohol has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years, and it holds an important role in social engagement and special occasions. So for most people it has positive associations. It is also an example of something where many people use the substance, yet comparatively few are harmed by it (the same could be said of illegal drugs like cannabis). So (as with the “just say no” campaigns that portrayed illegal drugs in entirely negative terms) dramatic warnings about potential harms don’t tend to chime with personal experience, which may be another reason for the defensive response.

The annual global average alcohol consumption is equivalent to 6.4 litres of 100% proof alcohol per adult per year. This is equivalent to 53 bottles of wine or 225 pints of beer (a bottle of wine or 4.5 pints of beer per week). In the Middle East and north Africa (which contain many Muslim nations where alcohol is frequently prohibited for religious reasons), consumption is much lower than average and often close to zero. In eastern Europe (and Nigeria) consumption is typically double the global average, and western Europe is not far behind. The UK, Russia and Australia are also well above the global average. However the type of alcohol, age and gender of drinkers, and the patterns of consumption vary from place to place. Broadly beer is quite widely consumed outside of the middle east, wine is most popular in Europe, Australia and southern South American nations, whilst spirits are most popular in Asia and Russia. In the UK the consumption of wine has increased steadily over the past three decades, whilst consumption of beer has reduced. The highest percentage of income is spent on alcohol in Europe and Australia – with Ireland being an outlier where around 7% of income is spent on alcohol. In general wealthier individuals drink more, although there is not a higher incidence of problem drinking.

For most people alcohol is a pleasurable mild intoxicant. And most people consume alcohol in moderation, where the impacts on health are more debatable (and in some cases even suggested to be positive – especially when it comes to wine as a component of a Mediterranean diet). So we do have to set the concerns about harm in context with the fact that many people derive pleasure and little or no harm from their alcohol consumption.

However, even when it comes to foods, consumers are increasingly given a warning of the fat, salt and sugar content, so that they can make informed decisions about their health. This balancing of benefits and risks is also something we are familiar with when it comes to the leaflets enclosed with prescribed medications, and has been in the spotlight in relation to the coronavirus vaccinations – where potential harms, like the tiny proportion of people who have had blot clot related complications, have dominated the discourse, despite the fact that for the vast majority of people it is protective and side effects are relatively trivial. Perhaps it is a good precedent that the benefits and risks of something have to be clearly explained even when there is widespread consumption?

After all, alcohol gets lots of positive messages to the public every day. There are numerous adverts showing beautiful, healthy, happy people engaging in social drinking. But on top of this, alcohol gets advertised from peer to peer. I see lots of social media posts about drinking, and almost all have a positive or light-hearted tone. Research corroborates this – surveys of social media show that posts which picture or talk about alcohol use show happy social occasions, groups of people interacting, romantic settings and chilled nights in. They talk about fun and exciting experiences, celebrating, dancing, dating. Posts rarely show risks or consequences. There are numerous memes like “wine o’clock” or “just a little glass” with a picture of an enormous glass of wine, as well as many references to alcohol as a survival strategy or a means to cope with parenting. Comedians joke about binge drinking and Irish weddings. I’m not sure people think about the impact before sharing posts or memes that feature alcohol, but studies show that exposure to alcohol posts on social media leads to increased alcohol consumption (why else would alcohol companies spend billions on advertising?). This means that seemingly harmless posts can potentially have negative impacts on others. This might particularly be an issue for those who have a problematic relationship with alcohol. Studies have also shown that people who post about alcohol consume more of it.

Yet it seems we each normalise our own consumption. Alcohol consumption and related risk is influenced by how the person perceives they compare to others in the population (if they believe others drink as much/more than they do, they believe their drinking is less risky). This is compounded by overestimating norms. So the more we drink, the more we assume others drink to subconsciously justify our own drinking (the same pattern also appears to be true of drug use, or sexual behaviours). The influence of social norms is a whole field of psychological research.

But I think that this can also happen at the societal as well as the interpersonal level. There has long been a tendency to encourage/normalise drinking in the UK that leads to people not recognising excessive/harmful use. Perception of alcohol use varies by drink, context, time and characteristics of the drinker. Adults typically regard themselves as moderate drinkers and disapprove of excessive drinking by others. We are not very good at judging the threshold at which alcohol use can be harmful, particularly when we are amongst others who consume alcohol in large quantities. I’ve met many who normalise drinking vast amounts (eg >40 units in a day). So maybe, like smoking and sugar consumption, and out lack of physical activity and increasing obesity, we do need to think more about harm minimisation?

Alcohol causes 24,000 deaths and over 1.1m hospital admissions each year in England, at a cost of £3.5bn to the NHS. Yet at the moment, the only labelling of alcohol to indicate risks is voluntary, as is the industry funded Drink Aware campaign (which sprung from the Campaign for Smarter Drinking instigated by my business mentor and NED Richard Evans before he left the drinks industry). Like the similar Gamble Aware campaign, the aim springs from corporate social responsibility and is intended to maintain profits and consumption whilst reducing harm – which could be considered to be competing interests. Experts say that the drinks industry would lose 38% of their income if drinkers kept to recommended guidelines, losing £13 billion per year of sales, which is why they are so reluctant to promote accurate information about the risks involved. So once again, there is a weighing up of corporate profits against public health. A minimum price per unit of alcohol and increased duty to subsidise costs to the NHS and the impact of alcohol-fuelled crime (eg police, services for sexual assault, refuges for survivors escaping domestic violence) might seem to be appropriate steps towards getting that balance right, but the public really don’t seem to like the idea of raising the cost of their simple pleasures….