THE BLOG
27/09/2013 08:04 BST | Updated 26/11/2013 05:12 GMT

The £21 Billion Drink: Solving Society's Alcohol Problem

No-one falls to earth as an alcoholic. Everyone who uses alcohol has learnt to do so. I hear stories of people's journeys into addiction and dependence every day. Stories of ordinary people, who we might quite like to spend time with. Each is unique, but there are common threads.

No-one falls to earth as an alcoholic. Everyone who uses alcohol has learnt to do so.

I hear stories of people's journeys into addiction and dependence every day. Stories of ordinary people, who we might quite like to spend time with. Each is unique, but there are common threads.

The most obvious ones are about drinking at a young age, parental influence and peer pressure; drinking to feel good, to self-medicate, or as an antidote to the pressure of daily life.

Drinking because alcohol is available, accessible and acceptable.

People also tell us that they were drinking because they knew no better - they weren't told about risks, or consequences, or harm.

So they continued drinking until the wake-up call that brought them to our door.

But 'that's them and we're us' and 'we're OK, aren't we?' because 'we know about responsible drinking, don't we?' - or do we?

We went out onto the streets to ask a few passers-by and yes, they had all heard of responsible drinking but after that, their knowledge and understanding fizzled out.

The drinking habits they described as 'normal' - with the exception of one chap who doesn't drink at all - were all at hazardous or harmful levels.

So, if the government is spending almost £20 million a year to tell us about responsible drinking, why isn't the message getting through?

It could be because the alcohol industry spends at least forty times that amount persuading us to drink their product - and that's without virals through social media feeds and subtle but effective product placement.

Make no mistake, the alcohol industry is really good at its job. So good that 79% of children recognise some alcohol brands more than things you'd expect to find in their lunchbox (Alcohol Concern). Now that's food for thought.

'Drink responsibly' just doesn't compete. It even starts with the imperative 'drink', which probably has the opposite effect. Call me cynical, but has that happened by accident?

As for units - who can calculate how many units of alcohol are in a drink? I've not yet met anyone who can; at least not without the aid of a calculator or a gadget that looks much like the slide rules we had for hard sums at school.

OK, units may be printed (in very small print) on the side of some bottles, but by the time the product is in our hands, we're well on the way to drinking it anyway. If you don't believe me, ask any salesman.

Has anybody noticed the emphasis of 'daily' in the guidelines, suggesting that there is a right amount to drink every day?

Let's be clear, alcohol is not a vegetable, we do not need to drink alcohol every day. In fact, the official guidelines now recommend at least two alcohol-free days a week.

If you think about it, it's an astonishing acceptance that many people would expect a daily drink, but this guidance is usually omitted from consumer information anyway, so the 'daily' message prevails.

Against this backdrop of persuasion to indulge, and general ignorance of harm, are we surprised that alcohol misuse costs the UK £21 billion a year?

Is it surprising that almost 13 million people regularly drink too much, 7.8 million people binge drink or that 1.8 million are showing signs of dependence?

What's more, alcohol plays a part in 1.2 million hospital admissions annually, over a third of all liver disease deaths and 10% of all dementia cases. All of which is completely preventable.

And before we put our collective hands on our collective hips and tut about the people behind the statistics, who are costing every household in the UK £900 a year, just pause for a minute to check whether you are really doing any better.

Because we need to do better - we need better information and better communication, so that we can all make better choices about whether, when and what to drink.

And we know how to do better. We have had some astonishingly good public health campaigns over the years, from 'smoking kills' to 'catch it, bin it, kill it'.

Can you help us to do better?

We'd like to know what you would say to someone to help them make better choices about drinking.

We're calling this your 'message on a bottle'. Not because we expect the messages to be put on bottles (or cans for that matter), or even at the point of sale, but because it's fun and catchy and people seem to enjoy it.

'Message on a bottle' can be words, music, poetry, video, art - whatever inspires you. Don't be shy - because somewhere there'll be a 'message on a bottle' that makes a difference.

Send your message on a bottle to us on twitter using @Swanswell and #messageonabottle or email messageonabottle@swanswell.org.