The Association for Qualitative Research
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Drinking responsibly or not

The Government is currently consulting on a 45p minimum unit price for alcohol. This is part of a wider alcohol strategy that is aimed at promoting responsible drinking and reducing "binge drinking".

Excessive drinking currently costs the NHS £2.7bn a year, with the wider society costs put at between £17bn and £22bn per annum. But is pricing the way to change behaviour? No matter what the media might have you believe, this is not just a British problem. There are now concerns across Europe. France, for example, worries about a new generation of young people who are drinking to get drunk, shunning its sophisticated cafe culture. Pricing is seen as part of the solution there, with Lyon introducing a ban on shops selling alcohol after 10pm to stop late night drinkers.

It makes sense that if something is made more expensive people will buy less of it. It is open to debate, however, whether price will deter the type of drinker that the measures are aimed at. Moderate drinkers may take a rational decision to cut down but those seeking to get drunk might just pay more for the privilege.

Behavioural economist Richard Thaler suggests some lighter touch approaches to reducing consumption through "nudging". These include removing the social obligation of the "buy a round" system, and introducing straighter glasses which make people drink slower than curved ones.

As with any behaviour change, advertising also has a key role to play. It has long been argued that if it were more socially unacceptable to be drunk, then fewer people would get in that state. In the US, Georgetown University engaged local bars and restaurants to cosponsor a campaign promoting the idea that the social norm is more responsible drinking than binging. Yet somehow, this doesn't seem to appeal in the UK.

Advertising here, by contrast, warns of the risks of irresponsible drinking. Take the "change for life" campaign: it targets regular at home drinkers by highlighting the impact on their long term health.

Young binge drinkers are also the focus of ads depicting vomiting on a night out or the increased crime risks that come with being intoxicated when out late. The Scottish government has even taken a more cosmetic approach by launching a free drinking mirror App that enables you to see how drinking can prematurely age you.

There is no doubt that alcohol is costing the government and society a huge amount at the moment. It is also true, though, that the majority of Britons do drink responsibly and without costing society anything through their alcohol consumption. Maybe it's time to step back and consider the benefits of intervention around the positive social norms of responsible drinking — and not just focus on the negative effects of those who make a habit of drinking irresponsibly.

 

Duncan Grimes
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013