A cost not worth paying: a reflection for Alcohol Awareness Week

This coming week is Alcohol Awareness Week which is an annual event run under the auspices of Alcohol Change UK. It is an event designed to change our relationship to alcohol and this year the focus and theme is on ‘alcohol and cost.’

Alcohol brings with it some very real costs, both personally, in terms of families as well as societal and community costs.

Alcohol Change state that:

‘The total social cost of alcohol to society is estimated to be at least £21 billion each year. We as individuals also spend tens of thousands of pounds on average on alcohol over the course of a lifetime.’

In the last week a whole host of organisations and clinicians in Scotland have published a call to not only maintain Scotland’s current Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) policy but to improve it as our MSPs begin to reflect on its continuation. Thirty-four organisations including the BMA Scotland, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, and the Royal College of General Practitioners have called for restrictions on alcohol marketing, an increase in the minimum price from 50p a unit to at least 65p, a levy imposed on alcohol retailers to fund local prevention and treatment and substantial investment in alcohol support services.

This call comes on the back of new research from Public Health Scotland which shows that the MUP policy had reduced alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions and had lowered alcohol consumption. The new report said that MUP had reduced deaths directly caused by alcohol consumption by 13.4% and hospital admissions by 4.1% and that the largest reductions were seen in men and those living in the 40% most deprived areas.

Whilst the economic costs of alcohol dependency and use are significant it is always the personal costs that are felt most acutely. Deaths from alcohol across the UK have gone up since the start of the pandemic and there are many more individuals who are living with worsened mental and physical health every day because of harmful drinking. As well as the pandemic the current cost of living crisis and anxiety over income are resulting in many people turning to alcohol.

Scottish society has always had an uneasy relationship with alcohol and sadly there are still too many people dying from the effects of alcohol consumption, and still too many individuals and families blighted by addiction to alcohol. One group that is often forgotten about when we reflect on alcohol dependency and addiction are older people. But those who work on the frontline of care and support frequently recognise the signs of a dependency and addiction that strips people of purpose, health and wellbeing. The crippling loneliness which many of our older fellow Scots are living with in these days is often one which some chose to fill with the illusory comfort and escapism which comes from a bottle. This is not being helped by the savage cuts at local level which are leading to the closure of older people day centres and a reduction in opportunities for folks to get out of the house. Nor is it being helped by the disproportionate impact of the cost of living crisis upon older people in specific.

Yet despite the data and the numbers, the research and the knowledge, there is often an uncomfortable silence around talking about alcohol and its impact on Scottish society. To call into question its value and impact sometimes risks the commentator running the accusation of being a Calvinistic kill-joy. The stereotypical image of a drunk Scotsman (or woman) much beloved by comedy-writers of the 70s and 80s may no longer be the central image of the Scottish persona but our close association with alcohol remains a popular aspect of our international reputation and seems to be a badge of character held with pride by some.

The See Beyond, See the Lives campaign which was launched in Scotland some weeks ago is much to be praised. It seeks to tell the story of the impact of drug and alcohol on ordinary lives. Like it or not there still remains a painful stigma around alcohol and drug deaths in Scotland and the collective silence that results from that prevents us from having a proper, open and honest discussion about alcohol and drugs. Those who have taken part in the campaign are much to be applauded, as it focusses on getting people to write letters to those loved ones who have died. Two of those who have taken part are the two MSPs Miles Briggs and Monica Lennon who have written letters to their late fathers. They both tell their first-hand experiences as the children of fathers who drank.

In 2021 there were 1245 alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland. These deaths leave families torn apart, relationships ended and lives and hopes empty. They and the thousands upon thousands before them were avoidable.

I have been around alcohol addiction for most of my personal and professional life. It has a power over people which at times appears to be inescapable as it pushes hope and warmth and love into the dark corners of living, as it turns gentleness into anger and calmness into chaos. It makes a child cower in the corner fearful of unpredictable wrath and brings hunger and emptiness where there could have been a house full of love and touch. It feeds on a culture amused by its impact on the one hand and yet incapable of talking about real harms on the other.

My hope this Alcohol Awareness Week is that we all of us start to talk a lot more about alcohol and its impact on our society, not least the growing alcohol dependency amongst our older population which in too many instances is going unnoticed and unrecognised.

As many of you know I love poetry and it has always fascinated me how few poems there are telling of the pain and distress brought about by alcohol addiction compared to those extolling the delights of drink. But one I came across some time ago really speaks of the harm of the booze though I would counter its lack of hope by saying that for some if not all there can be angels who attend unto the end. It is The Silence by the Pulitzer Prize winning American contemporary poet Philip Schultz

for RJ

You always called late and drunk,
your voice luxurious with pain,
I, tightly wrapped in dreaming,
listening as if to a ghost.

Tonight a friend called to say your body
was found in your apartment, where
it had lain for days. You’d lost your job,
stopped writing, saw nobody for weeks.
Your heart, he said. Drink had destroyed you.

We met in a college town, first teaching jobs,
poems flowing from a grief we enshrined
with myth and alcohol. I envied the way
women looked at you, a bear blunt with rage,
tearing through an ever-darkening wood.

Once we traded poems like photos of women
whose beauty tested God’s faith. ‘Read this one
about how friendship among the young can’t last,
it will rip your heart out of your chest!’

Once you called to say J was leaving,
the pain stuck in your throat like a razor blade.
A woman was calling me back to bed
so I said I’d call back. But I never did.

The deep forlorn smell of moss and pine
behind your stone house, you strumming
and singing Lorca, Vallejo, De Andrade,
as if each syllable tasted of blood,
as if you had all the time in the world. . .

You knew your angels loved you
but you also knew they would leave
someone they could not save.

Copyright © 2002 by Philip Schultz.


Photo by Kajetan Sumila on Unsplash

Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 1st July 2023 by donald.macaskill