If home is an English(wo)man’s castle, it seems it’s now also his and her local. Until now homes have been uncharted territory for studies of where, why and how people drink. But at the Royal Geographical Society’s ‘Drinking Spaces and Places’ seminar on Britons’ drinking habits in town centres and rural communities, parks and pubs, London and the regions, it was the home that took centre stage.
One of the single biggest factors in how our drinking habits and tastes have changed in the last 100 years or so has been the creation and growth of supermarkets, according to Dr James Kneale from University College London. His presentation on the history of drinking patterns in Britain also showed that the rise of the now ubiquitous stores has been phenomenal in the modern times: the number of off-licences rose by 40% in five years (1996-2001). A lot faster than on-licences. And apparently one of the fastest growing groups of ‘home-drinkers’ is women – they choose to drink at home more and more often, perhaps because alcohol harm is less visible there.
What are the reasons for drinking at home? As well as being more affordable than going down to the pub, Professor Gill Valentine from Leeds University and Dr Sarah Holloway from University of Loughborough found that their study respondents drank to relax, to entertain friends, to lift their mood and even to treat depression. Some people were also ‘aspirational’ in their drinking: having a glass of wine with a meal every night was likened to cultures in the Mediterranean. Their study also found alarming ignorance of what constitutes harmful drinking. Many respondents thought, for instance, that if they took exercise and ate a healthy diet, drinking to harmful levels wouldn’t put them at any risk.
According to Elizabeth Fuller from the National Centre for Social Research families have a significant influence over the way in which young people drink. She looked at the drinking habits of 11 to 15 year olds – the age group when most young people try alcohol – and linked them to their home environment. Apparently, children of parents who were tolerant towards their drinking are more likely to drink than children whose parents weren’t. However, if the latter did drink, they were more likely to drink outdoors, to hide their drinking, and take part in other risk-taking behaviour such as drug-taking, smoking and truancy. It could be suggested then that drinking in the home environment might lead to a more balanced and healthier relationship with alcohol – assuming of course that the parents provide their children with a responsible role model.
There’s no question, however, that drinking is a huge problem. Eric Stark from the Government Office for London highlighted that drinking behind closed doors at home can exacerbate domestic violence, another significant public health issue.
There was a clear consensus at the event that a behaviour change is necessary and the most effective intervention would be to make alcohol less available. Emilia Crighton, the Faculty’s Scottish Convenor, presented strong evidence on how alcohol minimum pricing would help curb drinking in Scotland, a particular problem spot in the UK. But it was also agreed that minimum pricing alone wouldn’t solve everything. What is needed is for public health campaigns to challenge the image of binge drinking. The issue is, as Professor Valentine and Dr Holloway pointed out, that drinking to a harmful level in a rural community in Cumbria doesn’t match the unruly and chaotic scenes in town centres all around the country on a Friday night. The majority of people do not relate to images like this and therefore do not realise that the way they drink might be putting them and people around them at risk.
Enjoying a drink at home in front of the telly or with friends at dinner doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. But the rise and rise of home drinking does pose a tricky challenge to policy makers and public health practitioners alike, and needs to be looked into more if we’re to understand the nature of Britain’s booze culture.