Shifted cultural norms

We are not anti-alcohol; it is a central part of our culture, and at low levels alcohol itself does not cause significant harm. But we know that cultural norms can create pressures to drink in ways that do create harms for both individuals and communities – and so we work with many other organisations to change them.

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Pressures to drink

Drinking is an expectation in all sorts of situations in the UK. Celebrations are often thought to be incomplete without alcohol. Workplaces frequently rely on drinks to encourage colleagues to socialise. Drinking in rounds is a tradition from which it can be hard to stray, but one that causes problems for those who want to drink less or more slowly.

Marketing is undoubtedly part of the problem. Through advertising and sponsorship, alcohol producers are able to imply that their products are essential to everything from watching sport, to celebrating holidays, to relaxing after work. While no alcohol company believes its own marketing causes the problem, as a whole alcohol marketing saturates our culture with the idea that drinking is a necessary accompaniment to everyday life and to every occasion.

Alcohol marketing saturates our culture with the idea that drinking is a necessary accompaniment to everyday life and to every occasion.

There’s more to drinking cultures than marketing. From an early age, we are initiated into a complex array of drinking behaviours, rituals and expectations. We come to learn that alcohol is associated with celebrations, weekends, food, and a range of social gatherings.

Beyond learning the ‘rules’ of drinking, we can also be made to feel that deviating from particular behaviours is socially condemned. We experience peer pressure at both an individual and a wider societal level. This can lead to us drinking in ways that we do not enjoy or which may not be good for us. People who do not drink – even just for a night, let alone a month or a lifetime – often report being strongly encouraged to do so, and being criticised for not.

It often seems that the norms of drinking today are fixed and represent traditions that have never changed. This is not true; for example, bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party would have been unheard of outside the most rarefied social circles just fifty years ago. Drinking heavily on St Patrick’s Day is, essentially, a creation of marketing departments. And while student excess has a long history, the idea of Freshers’ Week as a seven-day pub crawl was unusual until recently (and seems to be declining again).

Changing drinking cultures

The reality is that drinking cultures change, constantly. Young people are drinking less, sales of alcohol-free and low alcohol drinks are increasing, and the mainstream media is taking notice of the change. This is not a niche trend. Around 20% of the UK population do not drink, and a great many more drink only occasionally.

It often seems that the norms of drinking today are fixed and represent traditions that have never changed. But how we drink is changing all the time.

Our role

We support the development of spaces and products that allow those who do not wish to drink alcohol, or who wish to drink only small amounts, to do so without discomfort or embarrassment. We seek to normalise more diverse approaches to drinking, for example through encouraging a wider variety of alcohol-free products, more emphasis on food in pubs and bars, or less encouragement to drink alcohol at public events.

For many of us socialising sober is so rare that we forget how to do it. So at Alcohol Change UK we tell the truth: that socialising, partying, dancing, watching sports, and many other parts of life can even be enhanced if you are not drinking.

Innovations such as our Dry January campaign have a role to play. While Dry January has helped thousands of individuals to reset their relationship with alcohol, it has also helped shift the national conversation on drinking.

Not drinking in January is now a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice, rather than an eccentricity. This, in turn, makes behaviour change more achievable. As we have seen from the trends in youth drinking, not drinking is increasingly normal. We see it as one of our roles to support this – not because we are anti-drink, but because we stand up for freedom and choice. Supporting people to be free to drink as they choose, not how they ‘must’ to fit in, enables them to be healthier and happier.

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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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