Support is needed for drinkers most at risk of harm from alcohol, says Drinkaware

Adam Jones, Director of Partnerships, Business Development and Public Affairs, Drinkaware

Last week, Drinkaware published its annual impact report, which shines a light on our activities and impact throughout 2019. From community interventions to large-scale awareness campaigns, Drinkaware reached more than nine million people through our website and social media alone, and 1.2 million people used our online tools to better understand the impact of alcohol on their lives.

Compiling the 2019 impact report in 2020 has demonstrated how Drinkaware focused in on people most at risk from alcohol and how we grew our understanding of harmful drinking behaviours across the UK. Reflecting on our activity through the lens of the coronavirus pandemic has made us aware that sharpening our focus in this way has probably never been more relevant.

Our CEO, Elaine Hindal, put it simply in her introduction to the report when she said: “Given the unprecedented events of this year, Drinkaware is more aware than ever of the importance of the work it does. While we are yet to fully understand the extent of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on alcohol use, we are clear that the need to continue to reach those most at risk of harm is likely to be greater than ever.”

It is too early to predict the long-term impact of the pandemic on drinking levels, however it is crucial that we examine the evidence we have and take action to support people in the short-term while looking at ways to prevent alcohol harm in the future. Drinkaware’s own studies throughout the lockdown period consistently showed that a proportion of the population had been drinking more than they would usually, and a significant number of people displayed worrying drinking habits[i] [ii].

For many people, the pandemic will have exacerbated emotions and may continue to make aspects of life more challenging to deal with. And we know from our own research, and a recent report from the charity, Mind[iii], that many people drink alcohol as a coping strategy[iv].

Last month we published a study[v] that found certain groups appeared to be displaying concerning drinking patterns; around two in five (38%) of people on furlough, a third (33%) of parents with at least one child and around three in ten young adults aged 18 to 34 (29%) had been drinking more alcohol since the start of lockdown. This is substantially higher than the national average where, overall, more than a fifth (22%) of people in the UK – around 11.7 million – said they had been drinking more since the lockdown began.

And those drinking more were significantly more likely to display worrying habits, such as drinking on more days than usual, having their first alcoholic drink earlier in the day, finding it difficult to stop at one drink and drinking to cope with the day.

Our concern is that these drinking patterns could become ingrained; and habits, when formed, can be hard to break. In addition, with no sign yet of the effects of the pandemic halting – in fact, many signs point towards continued disruption to life as we knew it – we continue to worry about groups of people who are most vulnerable to harm from alcohol, and their ease of access to medical or support services, or both. For example, the British Liver Trust[vi] saw an increase in calls to its helpline during lockdown, and the charity warns the UK could face an ‘epidemic of liver disease’.

While we found the majority of adults in the UK drank about the same or less during lockdown, it is important that we continue to monitor trends in alcohol consumption to identify the numerous individuals who need support to cut back. There is a spectrum of short- and long-term health conditions, as well as social consequences, that occur as a result of drinking, and Drinkaware is determined to reach as many people as possible who may need our support.

Later this month, Drinkaware will be launching a digital campaign to encourage people who have had more to drink than they usually would over the past few months to take more drink-free days every week. And in November we will publish our annual report into drinking behaviours and habits to help us understand the impact of alcohol. In addition, Drinkaware will continue to provide, and invest in, the most relevant tools to help people cut down on their drinking, while we work hard to push alcohol harm prevention higher up the government’s agenda.

Drinkaware has an online self-assessment questionnaire that can help identify whether your relationship with alcohol is risky to your health: