Sunday, 18 November 2012

Alcohol No Ordinary Commodity: Some Ramblings

Those of you with even a modicum of knowledge of alcohol policy will know that this title is not original but taken from a very famous book by Babor et al.  However it is a good way to introduce a few of my rambling thoughts on how normalised alcohol has become in our culture.  The stimulus for this was an encounter on twitter.  Many tweets (I am just of guilty of this) are bit jokey and often somewhat facile.  I received a tweet inviting all people following the strand to a school fete where high end vodka would be sold.  The school was in the independent sector and catered from children of all ages.  There was an interaction to establish what was taking place.  Apparently there was a licence for this event and it was not to promote the product.  Now I am sure academic careers have been made on discussing the distinction between promotion and selling but as the reasonable man it strikes me that the ultimate aim is the same-to sell more of the product.  In the past I have been a treasurer for a PTA and I know the financial pressures schools are under and I have no doubt this is perfectly legal but have we really reached a point where everything is a marketing opportunity?

It has been a couple of months since my last blog and in that time I have been involved in a rather bruising encounter with someone who represents the licence trade and it has become clear to me that if my experiences are typical there is now a chasm between the public health community and the alcohol industry in its many forms.  The gloves are off and it is imperative that we must stop scoring own goals.  I do not consider the recent decision on the part of the Office of National Statistics not to rely on alcohol attributable fractions when calculating alcohol related morbidity to be an own goal and accept that a case has been made that the way they are currently being used is not sufficiently robust to base policy decisions upon.  Furthermore they way they have been calculated has been transparent from day one.  However I have a plea.  Even if it prestigious to work with the BBC and I understand the need for sound bites, can we be transparent please.  Recently the University of Sheffield announced what turned out to be a fourfold overestimate of alcohol related morbidity/mortality in the elderly.  I looked in vain for details as to how the calculations were made as I doubted them but could not find any.  We all have deadlines to meet but if you are not sure, and the figures have not been adequately checked, don’t release them.   It is not merely the reputation of a prestigious department that is called into question but those of us who want to see some checks and balances in an atmosphere that increasing lauds unfettered capitalism.

Now back to the normalisation.  Over the past 10-15 years it has become increasingly commonplace to see two or three sections of a supermarket entirely devoted to selling alcohol, often at cut price.  Not to mention strategically placed bottles of wine at the end of aisles where no alcohol is sold to remind us to treat ourselves (if we had forgotten).   We will shortly be in the Christmas season and no doubt there will be more of this.  I note that in Northampton the large supermarkets are going to work with the police to prevent alcohol related crime over the Xmas season.  How is this going to tally with selling alcohol at discount prices?  Silly me, of course they will only sell to “responsible consumers.”  However we cannot entirely blame the supermarkets.  They are merely reflecting what we as customers expect and demand.  We seem quite happy to acquiesce in the supermarkets desire to treat buying alcohol as routinely as milk and bread.   How have we reached this state of affairs?   

In a post script a tweet was sent out on Saturday night thanking people for attending the fete with a photograph of the vodka attached saying that the majority was sold.  There were also a number of congratulatory tweets that followed.  It appears that as the country slides further to the right in a bid to become leaner and fitter (and for the vast majority significantly poorer) that we must all worship on the altar of unfettered capitalism regardless.  So it seems it is ok to sell alcohol at a Xmas school fete and nobody bats an eyelid.  I suggest at some point we appear to be losing the plot. 


  1. But over the past eight years at least, alcohol consumption in this country has been steadily falling, so you can't really blame the supermarkets for leading us all down the path to perdition.

  2. Dear Curmudgeon

    The age groups where consumption is falling is 16-24 (dramatically). Once individuals reach 30 their consumption tends to plateau and in some cases rise. Most of this group purchase their alcohol from supermarkets. Consumption data needs to be unpacked for trends in different groups.

  3. I completely agree with you John. I see in my work middle aged women who have gone from social drinkers, pre child rearing, to hidden, home drinkers who have a problem at best, or drink hazardously at worst. It is this unseen tsunami of problem drinkers, some professional, others stay at home Mums, who need a great deal of support and empathy to tackle their addiction which leads to chaotic lifestyles, family breakdown, and domestic violence.

    1. Thamk you for kind comments and good luck with your work. My blog may not have made it clear but I am alcohol researcher. I would like to explore this issue much more as thus far much of what is known is anecdotal. I already had a proposal to explore this designed but it was not funded a year ago. If you can email me on I would be grateful. You can follow me on twitter @johnfoster12.

  4. Interesting stuff. Is a key issue here (which you I think you allude to in the discussion of supermarkets) that there's still a big emphasis (certainly in the media, maybe in a lot of policy?) on the individual level (awareness, education, responsibility) and much less on the higher level issues (e.g. marketing, availability) and how these interact with individual level factors?

  5. Quite right. Alcohol is being brought into daily living more and more - little wonder over consumption is increasing.

    I'd love to see alcohol sales simply being banned completely from all points of sale, except off-licences, pubs, and licenced restaurants.

    Of course, it's unlikely the will of the public would ever rise to overpower the interests of powerful supermarket lobbyists, but simply separating alcohol sales from general sales could greatly restore a wary respect of alcohol that's long lost.

    Perhaps it might also help to curtail the continuing attempts of marketers to appeal to the young with alco-pops etc.

    It could also provide a much needed restoration of our old village pubs as pleasant and thriving social watering-holes