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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  


         The politics of drinking
May 10, 2010



Forgotten and forgetting: deprivation and drinking

It’s not the drink that determines whether you have a drink problem, it’s how little money you’ve got in your pocket. I’ve the made the point before and now a hefty lump of fresh evidence has come out to support it.

The North West Public Health Observatory (NWPHO) has published a series of reports that break down drinking patterns and alcohol problems into different population segments in an effort to target health interventions and social marketing campaigns.

In line with past studies they show that while alcohol consumption is as great, or even greater, in wealthier segments (although they drink wine rather than beer), alcohol-related hospital admissions are massively skewed towards the poor.

The reports use a variety of measures but they all tell the same story. For example, going by the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, a man living in the poorest fifth of the population is five-and-a-half times more likely to find themselves in hospital with ‘alcohol-specific mental and behavioural disorders’ than if they were among the richest fifth.

And a man (I’m just looking at the men here to make it easy for myself) in the bottom tenth is seven-and-a-half times more likely than a man in the top tenth.

Using more colourful population segmentation techniques, someone living in social housing is eight-and-a-half times more likely to have an alcohol-related disorder than a ‘career professional’, and the ‘vulnerable disadvantaged’ register 13 times as many hospital admissions as ‘affluent families’.

Of course, if you’re struggling in life hitting the bottle is only going to make matters worse, and in part these shocking figures are a result of alcohol problems reinforcing the effects of poverty in a vicious circle.

Yet within the poorest segments there is a polarisation – there are more non-drinkers and more harmful drinkers than in wealthier segments. Even in deprived populations those with drink problems are a small minority.

Another interesting way in which the NWPHO looks at the question is through people’s attitude to their drinking*. The highest scores are for positive statements: “Alcohol goes well with food” and “Alcohol makes socialising fun”. Around 40% say they “really enjoy a night out at the pub”.

Only a small minority take the understandable but dangerous approach that “Alcohol helps me forget my problems” – but it’s a much bigger minority among the poor, going up to nearly 20% of those in social housing compared to as few as 5% in some wealthier segments. And the poorest tend to agree that there’s “Little I can do to change my life”.

Those most vulnerable to drinking problems are those who drink for the wrong reasons. Alcoholism is closely related to depression, and depression has real causes in those problems people want to forget.

And while money can’t buy happiness it’s not a bad deposit on it.

*It’s not quite what the writers of the reports had in mind, but there’s useful consumer insight here for marketers and pub operators. Don’t tell them I told you…

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