• Lucy Markillie
Friend or foe? Our complicated relationship with alcohol

At yesterday’s launch of the #GMBigAlcoholConversationit was revealed that harms associated with alcohol are costing Greater Manchester's public services £1.3 billion a year. Amounting to almost £500 for every resident, this is the annual amount we are paying through health, social care, crime and work costs because of the way we drink. 

Through our charity, Recovery Works, we support people for whom drinking has become problematic to the point of addiction. So, it was interesting to note that the focus of the launch event was not on how we better help those people to recover, but rather on the ripple effect drinking can have on those around us - particularly our children. I’m hopeful that this will resonate with many parents, whose concern for the wellbeing of their family may trigger a rethink about their relationship with alcohol, when previous messages about harms to their own health have not. 

As an anchor organisation for Greater Manchester with the ability to reach of 15,000 businesses in the region, the fact that higher earners (over £40K) are the most likely people to drink beyond the recommended guideline of 14 units a week served as a reminder of how well-placed we are to support employers to feel comfortable in having honest conversations about alcohol with their employees. A survey from the Chartered Institute of Personal Development found only 33% of employers have formally trained their managers on alcohol and drug policy and management issues, and 43% of workplaces did not have a specific alcohol policy - while just 27% had capability procedures for managing staff with alcohol problems.  

Some employers continue to foster cultures of drinking at several stages of working life among staff, from first initiation with colleagues and as a motivation for socialising through to rewarding individual or group achievements.

Employers have a duty of care to promote health and wellbeing among their staff when it is in fact as commonplace for workers to adopt alcohol as a coping mechanism for managing the pressures of modern life. It is here that we are uniquely placed to influence, coach and mentor employers, and in turn their employees, to identify the reasons why alcohol has become a (temporary) means of coping and, ideally, remove the source of the pressures or help to find alternative, healthier ways of managing stress. 

So, is alcohol our friend or our foe? Everything I’ve said so far would indicate it is very much the enemy, to be fought at every turn. However, the alcohol industry, and indeed Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health & Social Care, remind us to “drink responsibly”, and that they do not wish to “punish responsible drinkers”. This concerns me, and I know it does many health professionals, as it is often used by alcohol producers to deflect responsibility for harm that befalls their customers. If you drink “irresponsibly” then that’s your failing, not theirs, yet taken to its logical conclusion, drinking responsibly would mean not drinking at all.  

More positive news was the confirmation that drinking levels amongst young people continue to fall. Amongst 16-17-year-olds in England, the proportion who reported drinking nowadays fell from 88% in 2001 to 65% in 2016, and the decline over the same time period for 16-24-year-olds was from 90% to 78%. There are still questions to be asked about the level of drinking amongst those who do drink but still, these figures are to be broadly welcomed.

Why are young people drinking less? The evidence is not yet robust enough to draw firm conclusions, but it is safe to say that the rise of internet-based technologies, shifts in parenting behaviour and changing social norms are all contributory factors. Is there an arrival of a new generation, succeeding Generation X and the Millennials, for whom their health and image are more important than getting drunk? If so, then maybe Instagram is good for something after all.