I have to admit that I started on the G&T early when lockdown was announced. Given the huge rise in the sale of alcohol that week, I wasn’t the only one. But when the pandemic is all over, those flashy bottles of alcohol we have brought into our homes will have unleashed another wave of disease – alcoholism.
Alcoholism is a disease I am familiar with. It played a part in my upbringing.
On both sides of my family I had at least one uncle where the full range of alcoholism has been played out. To the uninitiated, that includes, but is not limited to, domestic violence, divorce, financial ruin, dementia and premature death. The impact at home, although once removed, was keenly felt as previously full lives descended into chaos. Whilst my own parents are seemingly asymptomatic, they both had aunts and uncles and grandparents who were similarly afflicted. In fact, the two dynasties that combined to make me who I am are shot through with alcoholism. Recent ancestors, who were described as ‘liking a drink’, as their liver disease, chaotic lives and premature deaths testified, were most likely raging alcoholics.
Many consider alcoholism to be a lifestyle choice rather than a disease – you can’t become an alcoholic if you don’t drink. However, that logic doesn’t necessarily flow. Nobody would suggest that skin cancer, type2 diabetes or AIDS are not diseases. People, even when aware of the risks, do things they enjoy – sunbathing, eating what they like and sex. What these diseases have in common, like alcoholism, is that they are preventable. You will most likely never develop skin cancer if you don’t go out in the sun.
In the case of my family, my parents independently made the connection that the high instance of alcoholism was not simply random chance or caused by environmental factors. Their frequent warnings about a genetic connection with alcoholism, overwhelming in their own experience, is confirmed by the science. Studies, such as the largest ever conducted by the Washington School of Medicine, have established that genetics, as in the case of many cancers and other diseases, is a key factor. Maybe alcoholism is misunderstood because most people who drink don’t become alcoholics. However, once an individual with a genetic predisposition to addiction begins to drink, personal choice has less influence over whether they become an alcoholic than any other factor.
Many people who have been furloughed will be feeling threatened.
If they lose their job, as some have and many will, hard fought for lifestyles will disappear. Alcohol can be a way of coping with fear. As Clare Pooley, author of The Authenticity Project and the Sober Diaries observes, “Alcohol and anxiety are so clearly linked.’’ She says: “We train ourselves over decades to associate any form of stress with a need to drink.”
The British might not be role models in managing a pandemic, but they still know how to drink. In anticipation of lockdown it was anyone’s bet whether the pasta shelves were laid bare before the wine shelves ran dry. Consumer analysts Kantar reported a record £350 million of retail alcohol sales took place that week. Google searches for ‘Wine delivery UK’ were reported to have increased by 2,250 per cent during March. A recent study in the Lancet, whilst reassuringly reporting British alcohol consumption has fallen in the last 30 years, pointed to a rise in alcoholism. The alcohol charity Addaction seemed to confirm this rise, reporting that 4% of the UK’s population account for a staggering 30% of all alcohol consumption.
Lockdown will change some people’s relationships with alcohol.
Whilst surveys and the retail trade point to an overall increase in alcohol consumption, surveys such as one conducted by Alcohol Change UK of how people are responding to the lockdown, point to 21% of people drinking more, with 35% saying they are drinking less or not at all. Given the rise in alcohol sales, it seems to confirm that those who are drinking, are drinking a lot more.
Social drinking has been substantially curtailed by the lockdown but home drinking, for some the proverbial lock in, clearly has not. Laura Bunt, the acting CEO of We Are With You charity, says “Our experience of working with people to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink shows that social isolation is a big factor in why people may drink more heavily’ and ‘drinks poured at home are generally thought to be larger than the measured unit.”
Elaine Hindal, chief executive of charity Drinkaware, adds: “Having alcohol available in homes, for many people, can be a source of temptation and lead to drinking without thinking.” She adds: “Small things can quickly turn into habits, like opening a bottle of wine when you normally would not.”
For many, alcohol will be a source of support as they grapple with the stress of having their lifestyle threatened. There will be some and their families who will pay a huge price.
Unknowingly their brains are genetically being rewired to form a dependency.
There may be that one drink, possibly through a straw, that breaks the camel’s back, allowing the connection to be made. Karen Tyrell of charity Addaction warns: “Alcohol is soaked through our culture. The alcohol industry has set the terms of the debate for too long. Flashy marketing disguises an industry that doesn’t do nearly enough to compensate for the harm it causes”
The link between drinking and alcoholism is at one level even stronger than that between smoking and cancer. Cigarette packets that once glamorised smoking now give consumers graphic illustrations of the potential consequences of their habit. You smoke, you personally take the consequences. When COVID-19 is finally over, and yet more alcohol inspired misery is inflicted, not just on individuals, but on entire families, I won’t be celebrating. It really should be the time for the industry to take more responsibility for the misery it causes. At the very least they should be required to take the flash out of their Gordon’s.