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On the rocks: Scotland's relationship with alcohol

Holyrood magazine

On the rocks: Scotland's relationship with alcohol

“We’re conditioned to believe that alcohol is pertinent to every moment. Celebrate, commiserate, congratulate. It brings us success, it brings us happiness, it brings us our partners, it brings us entertainment, fun. It is the source of all things. Removing it may as well be the end of your life.”

At one point, not so long ago, Ruari Fairbairns believed all these things to be true.

A former oil broker in London, alcohol was a key part of his job, his social circles and the general culture of life in the UK’s capital city.

But it was also wrecking his marriage and relationship with his young children, and it was this revelation that made him re-evaluate his relationship with alcohol – along with 70,000 other people across the world.

After quitting alcohol, Fairbairns and his colleague Andy Ramage set up an online alcohol prevention programme called One Year No Beer, which is designed to challenge people’s perception of and relationship with alcohol rather than simply working on the basis of complete abstinence.

Fairbairns believes that being able to recognise why you drink and identify “triggers” that might lead to reaching for the bottle will enable people to moderate their own drinking.

“I mean, you become boring, a hermit. Who wants to hang out with people who don’t drink?” continues Fairbairns. “That’s what I thought it was. So, I boldly went into the unknown and what I discovered was everything got better. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter how many times you told me your life would be so much better if you didn’t drink – and I think this is the same for other people – I would never have listened until I experienced that myself.”

While the most recent stats from the Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy (MESAS) report show that alcohol sales remain at their lowest level on record for a second year running – though at an equivalent of 19 units per person per week in 2019, it’s still far from ideal – lockdown has led many Scots down a route of extremely problematic drinking.

Figures published earlier this year from polling commissioned by health charities Alcohol Focus Scotland and Alcohol Change UK suggested that more than a million adults (29 per cent) in Scotland were drinking more than they were before lockdown measures were introduced.

And while the study also showed that the same proportion reported a reduction in how often they were drinking, or stopped drinking altogether, it is the ones who have increased their alcohol intake as a result of the pandemic and lockdown measures that provide a worrying insight into the power of alcohol triggers and a reliance on alcohol to deal with stress.

A further study commissioned by the same groups found that in Scotland, people who were already drinking at high levels before the pandemic were more likely to have increased their drinking during lockdown, with stress identified as a key factor.

While more than a quarter of respondents in that study reported drinking more than usual during lockdown, this figure increased to a third for those already drinking at higher levels before.

Our alcohol use may become part of the problem, taking a toll on our mental and physical health and damaging our relationships

Dealing with stress was cited by around one fifth of all respondents as a reason for drinking. For those drinking more than usual, more than half said they used alcohol as a way to handle stress or anxiety.

“It can be tempting to have a drink to ‘take the edge off’ our worries, but alcohol is a depressant that can increase our anxiety and disrupt our sleep, making it more difficult to deal with stress,” says Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.

“Our alcohol use may become part of the problem, taking a toll on our mental and physical health and damaging our relationships.”

Fairbairns couldn’t agree more that the knock-on effects of drinking too much are wider reaching than most people realise, and can actually be causing a lot of the problems people are trying to escape from.

He is almost evangelical in his belief that removing alcohol from your life will, quite literally, transform it.

His One Year No Beer programme works by encouraging people to sign up to a challenge of either 28, 90 or 365 alcohol-free days.

Fairbairns believes that by adding in the challenge element, it combats a lot of the stigma that comes hand in hand with declining an alcoholic drink.

But he knows better than anyone that nobody just arrives at the point of wanting to give up drinking overnight – it usually follows a series of revelations about the impact alcohol is having on your life.

Having grown up on the Isle of Mull, Fairbairns started drinking at around age 13, was a “big party animal” in his 20s and has had a love-hate relationship with alcohol for a number of years.

“I remember coming home at four o’clock in the morning and I can’t find my house keys, so I’m like, do I sleep on the doorstep, what do I do? I remember all of the bad decisions you can make when you’ve had a drink, whether they are accidents or – not that I ever did it – drink driving. Lots of people do that.

“I know so many people who cannot remember what they did after drinking. And yet they’re absolutely convinced that it’s fun. And it’s cost them a ton of money, they feel like absolute shit, they can’t remember anything. And this is fun. I mean, if that’s not ridiculous, then I don’t know what is.

“And I think that’s the whole thing of it, if you can pluck somebody out of the matrix for 90 days, show them what life is like without booze, more often than not, they won’t go back.

“It totally transformed my marriage and I became a much more present father. Ninety days no booze should come before marriage counselling. If you’re struggling in your marriage, don’t drink for 90 days. Alcohol just adds anger and frustration and shortness and snappiness and stops you sleeping.

“Alcohol is 100 per cent poison, because it’s impacting your physical and mental health so much, and you don’t realise, even if you’re drinking a small amount, you will probably see a huge benefit in taking an extended break from alcohol.

“We as a society are so completely hoodwinked by alcohol.”

In Scotland, minimum unit pricing (MUP), introduced in 2018, is said to have contributed to a five per cent drop in alcohol sales.

The first country in the world to implement such a policy – which means each unit of alcohol must cost at least 50p – the policy was designed to raise the price of high-strength drinks and help to curb Scotland’s problematic drinking.

A report published by Public Health Scotland in June said the biggest reductions were in the sale of cider and perry, which also saw the biggest increase in price on average.

Another study, published just last month, revealed that half of Scottish people are actually in favour of MUP, despite the controversy which surrounded its implementation.

Analysis by Public Health Scotland of the 2019 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 49.8 per cent of the 1,022 people asked supported the measure, compared to 27.6 per cent who did not.

But there is still a long way to go to change Scotland’s relationship with alcohol, which, historically, has always been more of a problem than south of the border; indeed the rate of alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland was twice that of England in 2018.

“Based on alcohol sales, average alcohol consumption in 2019 is estimated at 9.9 litres of pure alcohol per adult in Scotland,” says Lucie Giles, public health intelligence principal at Public Health Scotland. “This is the lowest we have seen in the available data and maintains the smallest difference between Scotland and England and Wales since the early 2000s.

When you’re watching something your whole life, since you’re in nappies, parents, aunties, uncles celebrate, commiserate, congratulate with booze, that’s when it goes in

“Despite these encouraging trends, the most recent survey data shows that nearly a quarter of adults exceeded the revised low-risk weekly drinking guidelines, and that drinkers in the lowest income group are likely to consume more.

“An average of 22 people per week are still dying as a result of their alcohol consumption and again this is not spread evenly throughout the population: those in the most deprived areas are more likely to be hospitalised or die because of an alcohol-related cause. Like all harm caused by alcohol, this is preventable.”

There is clearly a long way still to go and the pandemic has left a legacy of problematic drinking which will no doubt be evident in the next annual publication of alcohol statistics in Scotland.

Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, who provide support for anyone concerned about someone else’s drinking or drug use, see the reality of increased consumption every day. Since March they have experienced unprecedented numbers of calls to their helpline with people seeking support for themselves and their loved ones.

Justina Murray, the charity’s chief executive, says: “The number of people contacting the Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs helpline during lockdown has been twice the level for the same period last year (mid-March to mid-July).

“This includes a four-fold increase in people contacting us with concerns about their own substance use, as well as a 56 per cent increase in contact from family members concerned about others. Lockdown has brought tremendous pressures on families affected by their loved ones drinking, with alcohol consumption increasing, consumption within the home increasing and many of the usual support mechanisms not available to families during this period.”

Fairbairns believes that it is these kinds of behaviours, where drinking in the home is an everyday occurrence, that normalise our drinking culture from an early age right through to adulthood, and wants to ensure that these habits are not passed on to his own two daughters.

“When you’re watching something your whole life, since you’re in nappies, parents, aunties, uncles celebrate, commiserate, congratulate with booze, that’s when it goes in,” he says.

“My daughters are too young at the moment, they’re seven and five, but they know what I do.

“When it comes to alcohol, they’re probably going to go out, they’re probably going to party, they’re probably going to have a good time. As long as I keep showing that there is an alternative.”

Fairbairns says he is now “at peace” with alcohol and after two years sober, he can now choose to drink if he wants to.

“It’s a complete take it or leave it situation,” he says. “So, I can go to any event and choose to or not to. The difference is that when I choose to do it, I know that I’m going to write off a week or two weeks afterwards, because I’m just not going to feel the same, my head won’t feel the same, my body won’t feel the same, my mind won’t feel the same.

“But I’ve removed all the associations. So, steak equals red wine, that’s a big association for people, or fish equals white wine. None of that exists for me.”

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