Sunday, 13 May 2012

Home Drinking: "Because I'm worth it"

In my last blog I made a plea for greater use of the public house because it is a social environment in which to consume alcohol.  Arguably one of the biggest shifts in the UK alcohol culture over recent years has been the move towards drinking away from licensed premises.  There are a number of positive elements in the UK alcohol culture but it is questionable whether consuming more alcohol in our homes is one of them.  If there is a change I would like to see over time it is that alcohol plays a greater role in social culture rather than drinking filling a void because alcohol happens to be present.  The purpose of this article is to suggest that the rise of home drinking is a reflection of wider societal trends.  For the record I drink both at home and in a pub.

My research has shown that the reasons why individuals are increasingly choosing to drink at home can be collapsed around the themes of convenience, cost and relaxation (Foster and Ferguson 2012).  There are some positive reasons for drinking at home.  These include; firstly, parents who have young children and cannot afford childcare, secondly, not having to drink and drive, thirdly, parties and other social occasions with friends and family and finally, the smoking ban in licensed premises.   

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher was interviewed by Woman’s Own and made the following quote “There is no such thing as society.  There are individual men and women, and there are families.”  Some readers may feel that the best way to achieve optimal individual achievement is by reducing state involvement.  This is not a philosophy I share and the rise of home drinking could be a reflection of the way the England has moved further to right.   I am old enough to have seen the demise of socialism and the results of this.  In my opinion these are overall greater self interest and selfishness and a tendency to pull-up the draw bridge “so long as I an OK”.   Could home drinking be a metaphor of the rise of an increasingly self-centred society?

Some of the research concerning home drinking has shown that individuals like the freedom and “lack of surveillance “(Foster et al 2010) provided by home drinking compared to rules and regulations imposed in licensed premises.   This has been interpreted by Holloway et al (2008) as drinkers exercising autonomy.  Such phrases and the lazy clich√© of the “Nanny State” concern me for recent history suggests that untrammelled individualism is not a good thing.  I am not sure there is empirical evidence but it strikes me that the more freedom an individual or an organisation is given the more self-centred and atomised they become and in time lack of regulation or boundaries can lead to increasingly destructive behaviours.  The reason why western capitalism is in chronic crisis is not due excessive state intervention or restrictive safeguards!   

Often when I listen to libertarians I am struck that they have a blind spot towards the fact that when exercising individual freedoms, the cost is often borne by others.   Higher levels of drinking much of which now takes place at home increases the risk of contracting some cancers, liver disease, hypertension and depression.  These result in health costs that are incurred by the general population either in reduced services or increased taxation.

The recently published Alcohol Strategy made the connection that many people were now using alcohol as way of coping with stress.  Using alcohol in such a way can take place in both licensed premises or at home, however if drinking at home is commonplace the likelihood of it becoming a “creeping reflex” is heightened.  I do not intend as a general rule to use this blog as a way of giving advice but on this occasion, I will make an exception.  Drug effects are the result of a combination of three interactions.  These are a) the pharmacological effect of the drug, b) the psychological make-up of the user including what they believe about the drug and c) the social context in which the drug is taken.  At lower doses b and c are likely to be the most important.     

The pharmacological effects of alcohol are dose related, this means that as more alcohol is consumed the pharmacological actions become predominant.  Alcohol is a sedative and depressant, the chemical action is not to relieve stress.  If an individual believes that alcohol helps them to relieve stress or is a reward after a hard day then this is known as an expectancy effect, it is not a chemical property of the drug.  When alcohol is used as an occasional relaxant then it is unlikely that consumption will increase, but the stronger the belief that alcohol helps to relieve stress the more likely such behaviour becomes habitual.  Tolerance occurs as the body and brain become more used to the drug and higher doses of the drug have to be taken to achieve the same effect.   Thus the probability is that consumption levels will creep upwards.  If this happens then the pharmacological effects of alcohol will become predominant, and the individual is likely to become more depressed and anxious.  Thus drinking to relieve stress can result in greater levels of depression and anxiety-presumably the opposite of the originally desired effect.

I will conclude with a thought about stress levels.  For previous generations many of whom are still alive, stress may well have meant whether they survived armed combat or a bombing raid.  Isn’t the belief that it is necessary for us to reward ourselves for having got through the day just a little self-indulgent?


Foster JH and Ferguson C.  (2012).  Home Drinking in the UK: trends and causes

 Alcohol and Alcoholism, DOI 10.1093/alcalc/ags020

Holloway S, Jayne M and Valentine G. (2008) Sainsbury’s is my local’: English alcohol policy, domestic drinking practices and the meaning of home. Transactions of the Institute of British  Geography, 33,  532–547.

Dr John Foster is Principal Research Fellow at the University of Greenwich-School of Health and Social Care.   This blog represents my personal opinions and do not represent those of the University of Greenwich.


  1. John, is this generation specific?

    I'm thinking about the contemporary binge drinking / anti-social behavioural aspects of youth drinking (when going to drinking establishments is the preferred option) - v - 35+ somethings drinking at home, where I see all the issues you mention above.

  2. I think most of my comments do relate to people 35+. Though issues of cost and convenience and to a lesser extent drinking to relieve stress are also applicable to younger groups. The issue for younger people although again not exclusively concerning home drinking is their tendency to preload i.e. drinking before going out. There is evidence now that this concept is much more sophisticated than drinking to save money but it forms an important social function.

    Hope this helps