One of the most common refrains in alcohol policy debates is that we need to change our drinking culture. Used by politicians, the alcohol industry and, occasionally, public health advocates, it refers to a belief that the society in question not only drinks too much, but also has a problem with how it drinks.
Robin Room, a sociologist of alcohol, described the desire to change drinking culture as an “impossible dream”: a desire, particularly in Northern European cultures for a more “Mediterranean” drinking style, characterised by less drunken disorder and a more sociable approach to alcohol.
In 2005, the British Labour Party fell foul of this approach: promising that the liberalisation of licensing hours would create a new “continental café culture”. It set an unlikely goal, which meant that even where the new regime didn’t make things significantly worse, the policy was still widely viewed as a dismal failure.
Despite the best efforts of policy makers, efforts at cultural change have been viewed as largely unsuccessful. Perhaps one reason for this is that we often have little systematic understanding of what a given nation’s drinking culture actually looks like and even our clearest ideas may be misleading. For example, the widely accepted description of Scandinavians drinking spirits and beer in occasional binges while Mediterraneans sip wine around family meals is largely a description of male drinking. For women, the differences in drinking between these two cultures are much smaller. Moreover, these broad characterisations of Scandinavian and Mediterranean drinking cultures offer few insights into other aspects of the culture, such as why, when, where and with whom Swedes drink wine or Italians drink beer.
A more detailed picture
In our new research published in Addiction, we used a unique resource and a new approach to gain a more nuanced insights into British drinking culture between 2009 and 2011. The data were provided by Kantar Worldpanel’s Alcovision study, a market research dataset in which 30,000 adults a year complete a diary giving detailed information about each time they consume alcohol across one week. We used the data to identify eight types of drinking occasions that are commonly seen in Britain and then describe where, when and why they take place, who is there and what is drunk.
The findings confound descriptions of British drinking culture as one of widespread excess and intoxication. Although overindulgence is certainly there to be seen, half of British drinking occasions involve consuming only modest amounts of alcohol. These tend to be at domestic or family gatherings where people consume one or two drinks over an hour or so.
At the other end of the scale, we see heavy drinking occasions that are widely-discussed in the media, such as young people pre-loading before a night out and drinkers consuming a bottle of wine or more on a weekend night while winding down with their partner.
However, we also see occasions that are commonplace but attract less attention from policy makers and public health advocates. For example, 14% of drinking occasions involved domestic gatherings of family and friends, perhaps at house parties and dinner parties or to watch the football. On average people drank the equivalent of a bottle of wine or four pints of beer on these occasions and, in many cases, they consumed more than this. Yet such occasions are rarely discussed when identifying the kinds of drinking problems that need to be tackled.
This more systematic understanding of Britain’s drinking culture is important for two reasons. First, irrespective of how much is drunk, different kinds of drinking occasion may present different risks. Some occasion types, such as drinking moderate amounts of wine every day, may become habitual and lead to accumulating alcohol consumption over time and increased risk of chronic disease. Others may place drinkers at immediate risk of accidents or violence, particularly if they take place in locations with poor protection against such outcomes. So policy responses may differ for these different drinking practices.
Introducing a minimum price for alcohol and providing drinking guidelines for those deemed lower risk might reduce habitual alcohol consumption, but these policies might do less to tackle heavy drinking where getting intoxicated and letting the hair down is the main motivation and where the location, company and timing are all conducive to sidelining concerns about price and long-term health.
The second reason for developing a better understanding of Britain’s drinking culture is to invite questions: if you want to change it, what exactly do you want to change it to? Can you point to the bits of the culture that do, or do not, need to change? Can you say why – and importantly how – you wish to change them? Unless the answers to these questions can be found, the idea of simply “changing the drinking culture” risks always being an impossible dream: an attractive piece of rhetoric, but not a coherent policy goal.