Why is Alcohol a Socially Acceptable Drug?
In this article we’ll be looking at why alcohol is a socially acceptable drug and how this developed from the post war years through to the present day.
What is Social Drinking?
Alcohol and socialising have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years, in modern day society alcohol consumption is generally accepted as part of celebrations, special occasions or simply just to take the edge off a hard day at work. Like other drugs alcohol changes the way people feel and act, from a social aspect it lowers inhibitions, can make you feel less self conscious and make you more relaxed – all things that fit into and make social situations more enjoyable.
What constitutes social drinking is up for debate, there are no rules that define a social drinker and much is left to perception, for example an individual may think themselves a social drinker if they don’t drink almost every night of the week or because they feel that they have no apparent dependence on alcohol.
‘social drinking’ as a term is too vague and wide open to interpretation – what is acceptable to one person may not be to another
Drinking in moderation as a social drinker is no theoretical safe zone because alcohol is essentially a toxin that damages the body. Ultimately the meaning of ‘social’ varies from person to person, ‘social drinking’ as a term is too vague and wide open to interpretation – what is acceptable to one person may not be to another.
Social drinking could be defined as alcohol consumption that does not interfere with your life, once drinking begins to cause disruption then one may have crossed over from the social zone into the problem zone.
When Social Drinking Becomes a Problem
Tell tale signs that a person has left the ‘social’ drinking category and moved over into something more concerning is when alcohol consumption increases and becomes more frequent:
• Drinking at home
• Drinking on their own
• Justifying reasons to drink
• Drinking while on medication
• Lying about drinking
• Hiding alcohol
• Deceiving others
Binge drinking can become a problem and we see the negative effects that this can have on society as a whole – predominantly at weekends where costs to the health service, law enforcement and emergency services sky rocket due to excessive alcohol intake.
The repercussions of excessive drinking can also been in the workplace with a cost to the UK being in the region of 7+ billion pounds a year in lost productivity and days off [source]. Is there any other legal drug that inflicts this level of cost and disruption to society?
There was a time when smoking was ‘cool’ – then it wasn’t, attitudes changed when the education drive gained momentum in informing people about the dangers and risks surrounding smoking and heart disease, lung cancers and other related illnesses. Surely the time has come for a fundamental change in our attitudes towards alcohol and the effects it has not just on ourselves but on society as a whole.
Too Socially Acceptable?
Social acceptance of drinking is deeply ingrained into society, alcohol is a legal substance therefore looked upon as being ‘OK’, it does not carry the stigma of other drugs such as marijuana or cocaine for example yet is the highest ranking drug by harm ahead of heroin, crack and meth. Still though it is normalized, being so prevalent in our lives it becomes part of many things we choose to engage in, parties, functions, celebrations, sporting events and social gatherings.
Desensitization to alcohol is the result of advertising, widespread use, ease of access and other factors that make us as a society conditioned to the fact that alcohol is ‘normal’, there are no others drugs as harmful where this occurs. Here are some examples of how we are bombarded with exposure to alcohol in our daily lives:
• Television (tv shows/movies)
• Magazines (advertising)
• Seasonal advertising (ie: Christmas)
• Internet (advertising)
• Sporting events
• Social media posts
• Social gatherings
• Shopping (aisles filled with special offers)
We can see from the handful of examples above that we are exposed to alcohol on a regular and consistent basis. One common denominator is… advertising.
Let’s take television, we all watch it as do our kids but have you ever noticed the prevalence of alcohol on TV? Marketing companies use a strategy called ‘product placement’ where they pay TV shows to feature products for exposure, it is usually subtle but ultimately we consume it as with other types of advertising.
Now think about game day whether it’s the footie or the rugby, alcohol has become a major player in enjoying the match, tournaments are sponsored by beer companies, people are seen in drinking environments and a large proportion of half time adverts are alcohol related.
In postwar Britain the majority of drinking took place in pubs, male dominated environments where the drink of choice was beer, lager had not gained any traction at this point with the preference being darker ales which were generally weaker (abv 3.0%) than today’s lagers.
By the 1960’s brewers had already been advertising lagers for some time and with a generation that was ready for big change the lager scene pretty much exploded overnight, drinking was still practiced socially in pub environments but the drinks themselves were beginning to develop, coupled with clever marketing by the time the 70’s came along there had been a significant shift from the postwar years of heavy ales with a steak pie and game of dominoes in traditional public houses.
In the mid 70’s we need to take a look at the weather – yes the weather coupled once again with some clever marketing strategies. In 1976 Britain experienced one of the hottest summers on record and people were looking for ‘refreshment’, something that traditional, dark heavy ales could not deliver compared to lighter lagers and Pils from Europe, Heineken had the slogan ‘refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ and lager sales began to grow significantly with a notable decline in dark ales.
Lager soon became the drink of choice, predominantly among males an quickly became associated with the younger generation, football fans and those looking to keep up with the latest trends – traditional beers were being overtaken at a rapid rate.
During the past two decades something else had been steadily growing in popularity – wine. Easier to buy, foreign imports of wine were making their mark and almost four times as many people were drinking wine compared to twenty years previous by the time the millennium came around wine sales had doubled again.
The one difference between beer and wine was that wine was generally drank at home, the social scene of ‘off to the pub for a pint’ did not apply, wine sales were driven mostly by women and not helped by the fact that pubs were traditionally male dominated, in fact, many pubs excluded women from certain rooms with women overall not welcomed, the pub was all about the men and their social drinking. Today of course things are very different.
The late 80’s and early 90’s presented the drinks industry with a problem, after decades of continued growth consumption leveled off, pub attendance fell and it was mainly down to the rave scene. A generation had emerged that did not want beers they wanted E’s.
Quick to react however the industry adapted and began to offer stronger, more convenient bottled lagers, alco-pops emerged as did the ‘super clubs’ like Cream, Ministry of Sound and Renaissance, the dance scene was fueling the alcohol industry through meeting consumer demand and marketing to a generation that was eager to push the boundries.
Pubs also began to change with the traditional smoky male dominated environment coming under threat, bars were opening with large spacious areas, a more modern feel to social drinking took hold and all were welcome – stark contrast to the traditional postwar pub.
2005 saw a new law in the UK were drinking establishments could stay open for longer, almost warehouse like venues were used strategically with little to no seating making customers stand as it was believed that people consumed more compared to sitting down and relaxing – if you were positioned into having a drink in your hand at all times then you would drink more…
Happy hour promotions were becoming more and more competitive and alcohol was becoming cheaper. Targeted marketing from the drinks industry was also becoming more created and affective – there was a drinking boom in the early 2000’s.
Advertising and the fact that alcohol was so deeply ingrained into the culture at this point meant that the younger generation of the era regarded alcohol as a ‘must have’ for any chance of a decent night out, going out to socialise on its own was no longer enough in itself, it was becoming more and more about fusing socialising with alcohol to enhance the experience.
Since the post war years drinking has become something we do as part of a socially acceptable aspect of our lives but are we entering another shift? The latest generation appear to be slowly shunning alcohol, perhaps getting hammered just isn’t the cool thing to do anymore or is sobriety finding its place as a more attractive alternative?
For earlier generations the normality of drinking alcohol remains, a quick one on the bar on a Friday night after work or a few cans in front of the TV when the footie is on a Saturday afternoon, we buy alcohol alongside the groceries during the weekly shop, make a witty comment when a colleague comes to work clearly having had a heavy night and don’t think twice about our consumption until deep down you begin to think it may be more difficult than you first realise to abstain for a weekend or a Dry January.
Alcohol Consumption Facts
In 1950 Brits average alcohol consumption was 3.9litres per person
In 2004 Brits average alcohol consumption was 9.5litres per person
Alcohol is 64% more affordable today than it was in the late 1960’s
Between 1991 and 2017 the number of pubs fell by 22%
Alcohol – The Social Lubricant
The media tells us that alcohol is fun and should be used to help us relax, every social gathering whether it be a party, a wedding or a barbeque is centered around alcohol and we have all had that peer pressure to drink like ‘go on, one more won’t hurt’ or ‘just have another one’, why do social gatherings have to involve alcohol at all? Is it because we can’t be ourselves without a drink? Is it due to the fact we are labelled as boring if we remain sober?
Social acceptance of alcohol is so deeply ingrained it appears that life revolves around alcohol to be able to feel part of any social occasion – it’s just the done thing
Social acceptance of alcohol is so deeply ingrained it appears that life revolves around alcohol to be able to feel part of any social occasion – it’s just the done thing, so deeply ingrained in fact that if we don’t drink then we stand out like sore thumb and become labelled in some form. Is it not the fact that when someone doesn’t drink at the party it becomes a threat to those who are?
If drinking alcohol didn’t lower inhibitions would people drink as much? Is it true that alcohol makes it easier for strangers to form social ties, it brings introverts out of their comfort zone making them more ‘social’ but is consuming a mind altering drug really the right approach? Do we not need to be ourselves without chemical help to forge genuine relationships?
BBC Documentary – Alcohol: Old Before Your Time
Society and Stress
Britain works some of the longest hours in Europe, prices are high and there is the ‘rat race’ even getting home for some can involve sitting in traffic for hours after work, many jobs are minimum wage and then there is pressure at work, meeting deadlines and being expected to work ourselves into the ground to be the best we can be. One in 8 company employees has taken time of work due to stress, couple this with juggling childcare and finances to meet the next mortgage payment and it is no wonder that we feel like we need to relax out of working hours – enter the marketing tactics of the drinks industry who tell us that alcohol will do exactly that.
The big difference here of course is a drink after work in the nearby bar as a social situation to cracking open a bottle of wine as soon as you get home. In an ideal world we need to change the way we work and live, less working hours and realistic living wages as well as less pressure would reduce stress and in turn reduce the need to use alcohol to take the edge off a ‘tough week’ at the office.
Evidence Has No Impact
All the evidence and statistics in the world make no difference, when was the last time you heard someone say I’d better not have another or I’ll exceed the government guidelines? Health warnings are not heeded and as a former heavy drinker I know from experience that they meant nothing, a bore even, just more stats created by yet another study that pops up in the news from time to time.
The hypocrisy of government telling us what is safe and what is not while clearly knowing the realities of drinking is unreal particularly when you consider the fact that they are fully aware of the advertising that goes into selling this legal drug.
A cost of over 7 billion to the National Health Service should be ringing alarm bells but instead we have relentless advertising from companies who produce the very product that puts people into situations where they need treatment from that service as result of excess.
Amongst the young there are still those that drink before going out just so that they can be intoxicated before they even get to where they are going, this may be to save money but studies show that most want to hit the ground running otherwise it won’t be a stellar night.
Things are changing however, latest numbers suggest that the proportion of 16 – 24 year olds who said they never drink alcohol rose from 18% to 29% in 2015, binge drinking rates were also falling [source]
Sober appears to becoming the new ‘cool’ and should not come as a surprise, is it that drinking to excess is becoming less acceptable or is remaining sober becoming more acceptable?
Either way it would appear that the younger generation of today are drinking less, convincing those who witnessed the 80’s and the ‘naughties flying into the early years of the new century are a tougher prospect where drinking has been normalised to such an extent it has become the main player at social events and a way to de-stress.
So why is alcohol a socially acceptable drug? What are your thoughts and do you think that alcohol is becoming less socially acceptable that it once was? Leave your comments below or join the discussion on social media.