Understanding alcohol harm

Dr Richard Piper | June 2024 | 10 minutes

Have you ever heard the phrase ‘alcohol harm’ and wondered what it means? Here we explore what alcohol harm is and how together we can end it to make things better for us all.

When we think of the harm caused by alcohol, we might think of things like town centre binge-drinking or violence, or some serious health conditions, like liver disease or alcohol dependency, which tend to impact the very heaviest drinkers among us. But, as important as these are, that’s only part of the story.

The truth is that alcohol harm affects every one of us living in the UK with the effects on individuals rippling out to our families, friends, communities and broader society.

Put simply, alcohol harm can be used to describe any time when alcohol is having a negative effect on our lives, or the lives of those around us, however small. That could mean when it gets in the way of the things that really matter, like our relationships, work, or our hobbies, or when it damages our health and wellbeing.

Individual change

More and more of us find our drinking creeping up and this can have a big effect on our health and wellbeing.

Drinking alcohol can leave us with low energy, poor sleep, headaches, and hangovers. It can impact our relationships, our finances, our time, and our productivity, and can put us at real risk of worsening our mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, along with many other long-term health conditions, including, liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke, depression and cancer.

Because many of us who are drinking heavily don’t see ourselves in the stereotype of what an ‘alcoholic’ looks like – as we might consider ourselves to be managing our everyday life – we’re continuing to drink in harmful ways. The stereotype can act as a barrier to us recognising that we might be experiencing some form of alcohol harm and might feel better if we cut back.

Around 1 in 4 of us are drinking above 14 units a week (that's about six pints of normal strength beer or lager, or a bottle and a half of wine, per week), and this is harming our health and our families. And a higher proportion of men (32%) than women (15%) are drinking above the recommended maximum of 14 units a week.

But all of us are different and even if we’re drinking below 14 units a week this can still be harming our health, particularly if: we drink more than six units in one sitting; we’re not used to drinking alcohol but drink a lot at once; we drink even two units and then drive; or, if we have certain medical conditions or are on medication and drink even small amounts.

Therefore, it can be helpful to keep track so that we can get an accurate picture of how much alcohol we’re regularly drinking and whether it would be sensible to cut down.

By drinking less alcohol, we can feel revitalised, improve our sleep, mood, and relationships and reduce our anxiety. We can also save loads of money and get back more of our time.

Societal change

But alcohol harm doesn’t just affect us as individuals. It ripples out to our families, friends, our communities and wider society. It has a huge impact on health workers, our emergency services, the criminal justice system, and workplaces; leading to more time, effort, and money having to be spent on dealing with alcohol-related problems.

The good news is that all alcohol harm is preventable.

One part of the solution is to create a culture in which those of us who drink alcohol, do so by free choice, not by habit or through pressure from others.

We’d also like to see an environment where it’s easier for us to say ‘no’ to alcohol so that none of us are ever made to feel awkward or excluded by choosing not to drink alcohol in any setting, at any time, or for any occasion – whether that’s at work, at a sporting event, at the pub, at a get together, or while on holiday.

It’s time for alcohol to stop playing such a centre-stage role in our lives and in our society. We don’t need to be surrounded by alcohol marketing everywhere we go. Promoted as we watch our favourite sports, advertised as we travel to work, prominently displayed in our supermarkets, and strategically placed in our favourite films and TV shows. We don’t believe that alcohol is essential to our night out or to having fun or for it to always be there when we celebrate, commiserate, or when we’re just trying to cope.

Policy changes

With Alcohol Awareness Week this year coinciding with a General Election, it’s more relevant than ever that we recognise the serious harm alcohol causes across society and ensure the next government works with us to end it.

There are many effective solutions that have been proven to work that the next government should put in place right away. These would improve the nations’ health and productivity and some of them would raise money and save money, without costing a penny.

These include:

Creating an environment which prevents alcohol harm

Powered by a cross-government alcohol strategy, evidence-based policies will make alcohol less desirable, with tougher laws on alcohol marketing, and improved labelling. Action will be taken on cheap, strong alcohol to protect our health, and evidence gathered to support people choosing no and low alcohol options.

Ending stigma and recognise the complexity of alcohol harm

By acknowledging the complexity of alcohol harm, policies will be better able to tackle it. Lifting the exclusion of alcohol dependency from the Equality Act will be a key achievement in ending stigma and making a fairer society for us all.

Ensuring that anyone who needs it can access high-quality support and treatment

Long-term alcohol specific health funding will enable treatment services to be accessible and inclusive in our communities. Family members and friends will be better supported by well-resourced services.

By preventing alcohol harm from occurring in the first place, policies like this will protect and transform our shared public services and help us enjoy life more without having alcohol spoiling the show.

If you are worried about your drinking or even just curious, take our drinking quiz to see if it's likely to be affecting your health.

Check your drinking

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