The 15th – 21st November is Alcohol Awareness Week (AAW) in the UK, and this year’s theme is Relationships. 20 people die every day in the UK as a result of their drinking, and the harms and costs that this burdens our society with are hugely underappreciated in the UK. For example, an astonishing 12 to 15% of A&E attendances are alcohol-related and, in 2016/17 over 1/3rd of sexual assaults were perpetrated by an offender the influence of alcohol.
Alcohol and relationships is a particularly thought-provoking theme, given the multiple meanings that it conjures up. As a substance it’s deeply associated with the formation and development of personal relationships, going out for drinks with colleagues, friends or on a first date is done as reflex for many, with little thought really given to the pivotal role that it plays in the lubrication of social interaction.
Alcohol also alters one’s relationship with oneself. A drunk mind speaks a sober heart according to Rousseau, and whilst the veracity of this is highly doubtful, there is no doubt that being drunk fundamentally changes the way you perceive yourself, both mentally and most noticeably in a motor-physical sense. Society’s relationship with drinking is also a constituent facet; different cultures have vastly different relationships with the substance, with Britain regularly playing the role of joker in the eyes of other countries, with our love of binge-drinking and alcopops.
If one indulges theories of intelligent design, then the existence of alcohol and its role as a social lubricant could certainly be used as argument in favour of the existence of a divine creator. It is so efficacious at inducing the relaxation and mild stimulation on which social interaction thrives that social situations in the UK are rarely found without the invisible hand of alcohol nudging along conversation.
The inhibition of our inhibitions is, however, a double-edged sword. Alcohol also often changes our interactions with others for the worse. In 2016/17 in England and Wales, 12.4% of theft offences, 20.6% of criminal damage and 21.5% of hate crimes were alcohol-related. More recently, we’ve seen how alcohol-related spaces can act as breeding grounds for hate crimes, with a worrying spate of high-profile LGBTQ+ related hate crimes occurring over the last year in Birmingham’s gay village – a supposed safe space.
Drinking also leads to alterations in the perception of the self, with the Rousseau-ian idea that when we are drunk, we lose our inhibitions and allow ourselves to verbalize our true thoughts and feelings, bringing our true personality traits to light. You can decide for yourself how much that theory holds true in your own experiences.
Alcohol can also have more dramatic influences on the relationship with the self. Self-image is a central problem in alcoholism; people with a problematic relationship with drinking are more likely to see themselves as generally inadequate and unworthy of respect. Furthermore, there are the perception-distorting effects of alcohol with regards to speech, balance and wider motor skills. In a very literal sense, alcohol alters the way in which the person drinking it relates to their body and the space it inhabits.
There are also differences in the way that individual societies relate to alcohol and its consumption. Britain has a particularly problematic relationship profile with alcohol, with a well-developed youth alcopop culture and binge drinking tendencies- Lager is firmly lodged in British identity. Denmark has a particularly problematic youth drinking culture, with Danish teens consuming the most alcohol in Europe in their age group and 73% reporting that while under the influence of alcohol, they have done something they now regret.
Other countries and cultures have radically different relationships with alcohol. It is banned in certain Indian states as well as countries such as Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Yemen, typically on religious grounds. In countries such as Australia and Canada, drinking is prohibited in some areas predominantly inhabited by indigenous populations, in a feeble attempt to right the wrongs of the toxic legacy of alcohol’s introduction during colonisation .
AAW 2021 provides an appropriate moment to reflect on how the substance affects us, those around us, and the society we live in. Keeping track of drinking levels, checking in on others and seeking ways to have fun are all things we can do to promote healthier relationships with alcohol – a drug that puts enormous financial strain on the UK, costing for the NHS £3.5 billion per year.
Substantive policy change is, however, by far the most effective thing we can aim for in reducing the harms caused by drinking. A thorough overhaul of the way alcohol marketing is regulated, a 1% increase in duties to be spent on supporting treatment services, and minimum unit pricing would be significant first steps towards altering our problematic relationship with drinking.
For more information on AAW 2021 and to access sources of support, click here.
This piece was written by Jay Jackson, tweets @wordsbyjayj.