Why are you not drinking? Alcohol and Advertising

February 19, 2023
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‘I notice you’re not drinking, David’, she said. It was more of a question than an observation, but I didn’t answer. We were in an upmarket restaurant having a meal with our professional peer group celebrating the successful delivery of a teaching course on addiction treatment. My colleague, a fellow addiction specialist (not a current or recent colleague), was sitting opposite me at the table, her wine glass full. 

I’d been in this situation before, several times in my recovery, and, as it turned out, would be interrogated subsequently and recurrently by others on my choice not to drink. I could have said, ‘Well if I were to drink, I could end up losing my wellbeing, my good mental health, my job, my relationships, and my freedom to make healthy choices’, but I was two years into recovery – early days – and I didn’t want to disclose my history of alcohol dependence at that point.

Unsatisfied, she began to speculate on my alcohol-free status. ‘Are you driving?’

I said, ‘No Pamela,’ (not her real name) ‘I am not driving’.

Like a cat with an antagonistic mouse, she went on, ‘Are you up early tomorrow then?’

‘No, not particularly’, I responded.

‘Perhaps you had a heavy drinking session last night?’ she asked.

‘No, I didn’t.’

She fixed her gaze on me, determined to have an answer. ‘Well David, why are you not drinking’?

I gave in, not so much out of resignation as mischief. ‘As it happens Pamela, that’s because I’m a recovering alcoholic’.

She looked at me without expression for a second or two longer then turned her head abruptly to the side and said to her neighbour, ‘Hasn’t the weather been terrible recently?’ We didn’t return to the subject again.

Unlikely as it seems, I promise you that this is exactly the way the conversation went. 

There were three things that I took away from that encounter. The first was that my not drinking disturbed her. The second was that my disclosure of being someone in recovery was not something she wanted to acknowledge. The third takeaway was that this indirect pressure for me to drink represented a tangible risk at this early stage in my own abstinent recovery.

Let’s be clear, most people are not bothered by someone who does not drink – after all more than 20% of the population in the UK is teetotal now (higher still for younger people), but where there is resistance, discomfort or challenge, there is usually something else going on.

I’ve been challenged several times at social gatherings about not drinking – ‘Surely you would take a drink if you had something amazing to celebrate? What if someone gave you a gift of a rare single malt whisky – you’d want to taste it – right?’ As it turns out, malt whisky was my drink of choice, so not ideal to be challenged in this way really.

I think such questions come from an often-unrecognised unease around the questioner’s own relationship with alcohol. I certainly had an unhealthy interest in friends’ drinking when amid my own alcohol problems. There is a culture around drinking and often a societal pressure to drink. Not to drink can make you ‘other’.

Early recovery is a challenging time. Relapse never feels very far away and although it’s fairly unlikely many others will experience risky encounters with addiction specialists in social settings, it would be foolish to ignore the very real crocodile-infested waters that can exist for those of us making the perilous passage to recovery. One of those risks relates to advertising.

Although there is not a great deal of research on how alcohol advertising impacts those in recovery, the research which is available shows a high level of awareness of alcohol advertising in this population with concerns that such ads trigger craving.  The Alcohol Health Alliance published a blog a couple of years ago where two people in recovery shared their challenging experiences of being exposed to alcohol advertising in an impossible-to-avoid way. The vulnerability is clear.

It is everywhere – the ads you see on the TV during commercial breaks and during football matches, to the cut price drink deals that follow you around the supermarket from the moment you walk in.

Peter

rapid review of the literature from last year conducted by researchers at the University of Nottingham, reported by Alcohol Focus Scotland, found there was cause for concern (see box below).

When I joined Twitter a couple of years ago – tweeting about recovery, not drinking – I found myself inundated with adverts for alcohol and had to block them one by one. Interestingly, they were then replaced by adverts for gambling sites. I found the unwanted images frustrating, although not particularly risky, but in early recovery I would have been very reactive around these.

I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it

Mae West

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on reducing alcohol marketing to reduce the appeal of alcohol to young people and reduce risk to higher level drinkers and those in recovery.

For many of us who have severe alcohol use disorders, early recovery is tough. We are vulnerable. While recovering people might want not to drink, the alcohol industry is pretty indiscriminate in its approach. Like the addiction specialist in that restaurant all those years ago, their question is also, ‘Why are you not drinking?’. They then add, ‘You ought to be.’

We need to be supporting people on their recovery journeys and trying to help to reduce triggers. Limiting marketing is one of those ways. If you have any thoughts on this, take some time to participate in the consultation.

Continue the discussion on Twitter @DocDavidM 

Picture credit: Robert vt Hoenderdaal (istockphoto) under license

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