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Drink in the Time of Corona

Call for Blog Posts

We are aware that many of you will be interested in the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on certain aspects of society and humanity particular to drinking studies. We are aware there are quite a lot of conversations ongoing about the effects of pubs and pub closures, the new phenomenon of delivery and drive-in breweries and distilleries in the UK, and the effects of isolation on those with problematic or addictive relationships to alcohol to name a few. We are therefore, for the first time, throwing open our website to blog posts. If you would like to submit something, contact us on drinkingstudies@gmail.com.

Posted on 1st June 2020 at 2pm

Covid-19 and alcohol: mirroring stories

Written by Phil Cain

Big ideas are often born of big problems, covid-19 now joins alcohol in providing an opportunity for some fresh thinking.

Covid-19 forces us all to compromise. Our principles must take second place to its deadly threat. Beliefs which defined us a few weeks ago are now on hold.

Internationalists now call for tighter border controls. Nationalists pine for a foreign jaunt. Libertarians sit snug in their box rooms at the government’s behest. Socialists fret about the fate of commerce.

Nannies wanted

Covid-19 has destroyed the idea peddled by alcohol interests that the public is vehemently opposed to public health measures protecting their lives. Quite the reverse is true.

The public worldwide have embraced public health measures coming at a far higher cost than any of the tax, advertising or retailing measures typically proposed to take the edge off alcohol harm.

Keeping non-essential workers at home to flatten the covid-19 curve is supported by around 87% Brits. France, Italy and Spain’s more restrictive lockdown have had similarly overwhelming support.

But we all know we cannot stay in lockdown indefinitely, being further away from finding a way to live without the economy than we are from a covid-19 vaccine. 

Covid-19 and alcohol

The bizarre situation we now find ourselves in puts our approach to alcohol under the microscope. 

Should its sale be allowed? Do we have to need it in the same way as pasta or toilet rolls?  Is it more comparable to sugar, tea or oregano?

Or is any argument for curbing alcohol during lockdown not that it is inessential, but that its sale and consumption is potentially harmful? Why now and not before covid-19?

The WHO’s view is simple: “avoid or reduce alcohol consumption” during the covid-19 outbreak, because it can stoke anxiety, fear and depression, while impairing our judgement and immune systems.

But this clear message has not made its way directly to the public.  Little has been said on the subject in the UK, for instance. Policies on alcohol worldwide, meanwhile, have gone from light touch to very strict.

Assessing compromise

Strict bans on alcohol sales in South Africa and India seem to have significantly cut demand for overstretched hospitals and violent crimes, but have also had negative consequences.

In South Africa there were a few reports of looting and illicit trade. Some Indian alcohol dependents have died and the re-opening of its liquor shops created massive queues which may have worsened the virus’s spread.

Reopening pubs and bars in the UK too may yet create circumstances in which drinkers squeeze in too close, with intoxication adding to the confined circumstances. The government has commissioned research on how to minimise this risk.

In the meantime, UK home drinking does not seem to have made up for the lack of drinking in pubs bars and restaurants. Many of us have cut down. But those drinking more also seem to be those most at risk. The reality is messy.

Ideology is no solution

Alcohol, like covid-19, does not function as a carrier for any single ideology. We are, for instance, neither entirely helpless in the face of social pressures to drink, nor totally immune from it.

Cherishing our freedom to drink alcohol is undermined by it making us less capable of making rational choices. On the other hand, restrictions may increase the allure of more harmful choices.

There are ways to reduce alcohol harm which acknowledge the role the environment plays, our choices and the economy: reducing advertising, reducing availability, and increasing cost. Labelling would also help.

A lack of clear regulations and guidance leads to needless suffering and deaths. Nevertheless, the UK government’s approach to covid-19 is starting to follow the same path.

Entering a vacuum

The UK’s “stay alert” covid slogan, reportedly penned without the say-so of science advisors, serves as a denial of government responsibility, just as the phrase “drink responsibly” does for alcohol.

This political handwashing may or may not be accepted by the public. Eight out of ten people say they want health and wellbeing put ahead of economic growth during covid-19, according to pollster Yougov.

Will we blame avoidable suffering and death from covid-19 on our government or will we start seeing it as the fault of individuals, as we have for generations with alcohol? Time will tell.

None of us can escape the fact economic harm may at some point become too much for us to continue lockdowns. There are negative consequences to every decision.

Both alcohol and covid-19 involve agonising political choices balancing business and health. Politicians making clear decisions may yet prove more popular than those making ambiguity the centerpiece of their strategy. ■

Phil Cain is a freelance journalist and author specialising in alcohol. His ongoing coverage is founded on his widely-praised book Alcohol Companion.

Posted on 30th April 2020 at 5pm

Does COVID-19 mean alcohol is now considered a drug?

Written by Will Haydock.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to studying and writing about alcohol is that, as James Nicholls has said, it’s a great lens through which to look at politics and society.  It illuminates what we think about high concepts like freedom and liberalism, as well as more simply pleasure, not to mention all those distinctions we see in everyday life like ethnicity, gender, class and age.  Arguments about drinking often boil down to disagreements about morality and what ‘the good life’ really looks like.

Alcohol in the time of COVID-19 is no different.  There’s vehement disagreement about whether the lockdown is the perfect opportunity to cut down or the perfect excuse to crack open a bottle.  These aren’t just flippant suggestions or disagreements, or the desperate attempts of Polly Filler to get some new copy written.  Ian Hamilton, an academic at the University of York, has written in to the British Medical Journal, and Richard Piper, the Chief Exec of Alcohol Change UKhas weighed in on the subject.

Personally, I haven’t found many of these interventions novel or illuminating.  Like so many elements of policy or lifestyle at the moment, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have changed minds so much as confirmed people in their worldviews.

So for once I don’t want to write about what discussions of alcohol are telling us about politics or society so much as, quite simply, what they’re telling us about how we think about alcohol.

In recent years there’s been a suggestion that drug policy is ‘converging’ across different substances.  At the same time as we’ve seen more restrictions around tobacco, for example, and people have become more aware of the health harms of alcohol, we’ve seen US states and other countries legalising cannabis for recreational use.

What COVID-19 has revealed is that, in England at least, we have a long way to go in this convergence.  We seem to have taken on the idea that alcohol is ‘no ordinary commodity’ without quite accepting it as a ‘drug’ or ‘medicine’.  People struggling with alcohol have, it seems, the worst of both worlds.

This, of course, is not news to those who’ve had problems with alcohol, or supported others through this. Alcohol treatment has long been seen as the ‘poor relation’ of treatment for heroin use, for example.  And more obviously, the ubiquity of alcohol in our society makes it harder to avoid, which can make ‘recovery’ harder.

I suppose this view isn’t so far from the ‘public health’ idea that alcohol isn’t just another ordinary commodity: perhaps it shouldn’t be so ubiquitous, and we should treat it as seriously as we do heroin.

But if alcohol really was seen as just another ordinary commodity, we wouldn’t see well-meaning volunteers at this time refusing to supply vulnerable people with whisky – as we have done in Dorset.  And in terms of those other legal ‘drugs’, we’re providing smokers with nicotine replacement therapy or vapes, and it’s hard to imagine a volunteer refusing to purchase tea or coffee because of their caffeine content.  We’ve had to issue guidance explaining to volunteers that some people are physically dependent on alcohol and the withdrawal symptoms – like seizures – that they could suffer if they don’t have their usual tipple could be life-threatening.

This might not seem so odd: the intoxication and health harms associated with alcohol aren’t generally seen as being comparable to caffeine.  But think about tobacco, or, even more instructive, heroin – one of the most demonised and feared drugs in our society.  People who are dependent on heroin are generally prescribed ‘substitute’ drugs like methadone or buprenorphine to avoid withdrawals (and the use of unreliable, risky street drugs).

At the moment, local authorities (who fund this type of treatment) and NHS and third sector provider organisations have made significant efforts to make sure that people already prescribed can get their medication, and that the service is even more easily accessible than normal.  We have local council staff and volunteers delivering this medication – and we could even have had the local brewery involved.  They ended up delivering food, but importantly not their own beer.

As I say, alcohol has got the worst of both worlds.  Not an essential commodity such that it gets picked up as a matter of course by volunteers doing grocery shopping, and yet not a ‘drug’ or medication that gets issued, come what may, through your pharmacy or even delivered to your door.

Generally, the way this issue has been resolved (or ducked, depending on your perspective) is by instructing people that precisely because alcohol is no ordinary commodity (it can cause dependence and thus life-threatening withdrawals) it should be treated just like any other commodity, and purchased unquestioningly as part of someone’s grocery shopping.  It’s this status – as an essential grocery but not a medicine – that means off-licences have been allowed to stay open.

We only then run into problems if someone is struggling to afford their alcohol.  And the pragmatic solution here is again paradoxical: because in England we haven’t taken a ‘public health’ approach and made alcohol more expensive (through minimum unit pricing, for example) it is still pretty affordable for most people.  And for those who are struggling most, this becomes a financial issue, not a health one: the state (or charities) will be providing people with free accommodation and meals, and so they should have enough remaining funds (even through benefits) to buy enough alcohol to stave off withdrawals.

I’m not suggesting this is the perfect solution, but it is one – though not the universal one.  There are some areas where, just like food parcels or medication, alcohol is being provided free of charge to people’s front door.  I’ve even been told that the amount provided is calculated based on a medical assessment of alcohol dependence such as AUDIT or SAD-Q.

There are challenges and risks with both of these approaches – the pragmatic and the medicalised.  Neither is quite satisfactory, or grasps the attraction of – perhaps ‘essential’ need for – intoxication.  Would we all want our substance use medicalised?  Is it – should it be – medicalised only if we can’t get to the supermarket and pay for the alcohol ourselves?

Often, it seems that drug policy debates use alcohol as a test case, explaining that prohibition of alcohol failed and so will any other prohibition, and that to allow one person’s preferred high (through alcohol) and not another’s (through another drug) is unjust – even analogous to apartheid.  Perhaps, though, ‘convergence’ of drug policy is only desirable if it is something more akin to a dialectic, taking the best of both worlds.  Or perhaps a contradictory pragmatism as with alcohol under COVID-19 might be more realistic?

Either way, perhaps now is the right time for those of us who are interested in alcohol for what it tells us about the wider world to sit up and instead take notice of what the wider world is telling is about alcohol.

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