Improved knowledge

Everyone has an opinion about alcohol, but opinions can be wrong. Indeed, in the case of alcohol – which plays such a big role in many people’s lives, and which can elicit deeply personal feelings – our personal perspectives and judgements are often narrow and biased. For that reason, unbiased research is essential.

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The difference research can make

If we do not properly understand the nature of a problem, we risk proposing the wrong solutions. In the past, for example, people were sceptical that a brief conversation about alcohol – simply asking ‘Have you thought about your drinking?’ – could make much difference to alcohol harms. Partly through our research, we now know that ‘brief interventions’ like this, if delivered well and in the right setting, are an effective way to reduce the drinking of those at risk. They now form a key element of Government policy across the UK. By contrast, extensive research into the effects of alcohol education programmes in schools has helped us better understand the limitations of this approach in reducing harm, allowing limited money to be spent on better-evidenced methods of harm reduction.

Over the past thirty years, Alcohol Change UK’s predecessor charities have funded and shared high-quality research into alcohol harm. We have supported pioneering research into brief interventions, health inequalities, alcohol and families and licensing regulation. At the same time, the body of international research on alcohol has grown enormously. This research has allowed us to identify the key levers for harm reduction. It has also helped identify approaches that are less useful, and so can inform policy-makers at all levels where to direct their efforts.

For example, in 2016 Public Health England published a comprehensive review of the evidence on the public health burden of alcohol and the most effective policy responses. The review confirmed that the affordability of alcohol, and the use of pricing policies to influence this, has the greatest impact on how much people drink and the subsequent levels of harm. It also showed that properly regulating availability (both the number of outlets and the times at which they can retail) is a key lever for harm reduction. On the other side of the equation, it confirmed that information-based campaigns (posters, health advertising and so forth), while good at raising knowledge, do little to change behaviour on their own.

In 2009, the Scottish Government announced it would build its alcohol policy on the basis of the international evidence. Since then it has led the way, nationally and internationally, on bringing evidence-based policies into practice through its licensing laws (including a formal role for public health in licensing activity), pricing policies (for example the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol) and support for brief interventions.

Furthermore, it has carried out extensive monitoring into the impact of its alcohol policies and has established a detailed evaluation of the effects of minimum pricing. This illustrates how research can both inform and help improve policy at a national level.

The body of international research on alcohol has grown enormously. This research has allowed us to identify the key levers for harm reduction.

Research communication

Research and evidence should underpin the way we think about alcohol harm reduction. However, much research is inaccessible – whether because it is published in journals that are costly to access, because it is written in technically dense language, or simply because there is too much out there for people to digest. That is why one of our roles is to help with the curation and communication of the evidence.

The audience for research should not be limited to other researchers. Practitioners, such as people working in treatment, need to be able to access the latest studies on what works and what does not.

Policy-makers need to be aware of the evidence on policy effectiveness and also be able to see why certain policies are relevant and viable.

We as citizens need access to relevant knowledge that can help us to make informed decisions about our drinking.

The media are always hungry for new findings, but we also need to ensure that research is reported in ways that reflect the complexity of the findings without over-simplifying or over-sensationalising for the sake of eye-catching headlines.

We as citizens need access to relevant knowledge that can help us to make informed decisions about our drinking.

What next?

There is still a great deal that we do not understand about preventing and reducing alcohol harm. As drinking cultures continue to change, we need new approaches to tackling harm where it arises. With a commitment to rigorous, impartial research and a desire to put that knowledge into action, we can develop policies and interventions that are smart, proportionate and effective.

We can act to reduce the huge health inequalities that lead to alcohol harms falling disproportionately on the most vulnerable. We can create new interventions that prevent people from slipping into drinking problems. We can support more effective, targeted treatment. We can better understand how alcohol affects drinkers at different stages of their life. We can show the role that marketing, packaging, promotions and pricing have on consumers and broader social norms. And we can help ensure that Government enacts the policies that are best-designed to prevent harm across the whole population.

With a commitment to rigorous, impartial research and a desire to put that knowledge into action, we can develop policies and interventions that are smart, proportionate and effective.

Our role

We fund, carry out, collect and communicate research across all aspects of alcohol harm prevention. We have over thirty years of experience in funding high-quality alcohol harm research and will continue that investment as we seek to reduce harm.

We are committed to promoting better public understanding of alcohol harm, risk and behaviour change through honest communication about what the research is saying. This includes being honest when research findings are contradictory and do not provide clear answers.

We also recognise the critical value of listening to the experiences of those who are affected by alcohol harms. We have led the way in encouraging researchers to better engage with people who have personal experience of alcohol harm. By combining specialist knowledge, systematic analysis and direct experience, we can develop real insights that drive change.

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The Alcohol Change Report

Read the report for more on alcohol in the UK today, the key changes we need to work towards, and references.

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