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Time to accentuate the positive

Published:  18 January, 2007

The many lurid headlines in recent months give the impression that everyone across the nation, young and old, is a binge drinker. The reality is very different.

In the UK today, alcohol sales are falling and most people drink responsibly. The total amount consumed is within the government's sensible drinking guidelines, with UK consumption below countries such as Germany, Spain and Portugal per capita.

Three quarters of Scotsmen are drinking in line with the sensible drinking message, meeting the Scottish Government's target for 2010.

And the Scottish Schools Lifestyle Survey recently reported that over the last two years the proportion of 13 year-olds drinking in the last week had declined by 6% and among 15 year olds by 7%.

More must be done, but the picture is clearly not as bleak as some make out. And this is important. Academic research - over 25 studies in all - in the UK and USA shows that what is perceived as 'normal' drinking behaviour has a strong influence on how individuals drink.

Students, for example, tend to over-estimate drinking amongst their peers - 'everyone is getting drunk in the union on Friday night' - and the greater the over-estimation of what is 'normal', the more an individual feels justified in his or her own consumption.

The research was presented recently at the Scottish Parliament and debated by MSPs. The clear evidence is that changing mis-perceptions about the incidence of excessive drinking can play an important role in tackling alcohol misuse.

By consistently highlighting that the majority drink responsibly, rather than focusing on the excessive behaviour of the minority, individuals can be persuaded to question and change their own drinking patterns.

As one MSP said during the debate 'Perceptions matter. They shape attitudes, responses and - more important - mis-perceptions.' They also focus attention on the unusual rather than normal behaviour.

With the Scottish Government allocating 85m to tackling alcohol misuse in its recent Budget, the SWA has called for more support to be given to 'social norms' research and pilot projects in this area.

Alcohol Awareness Week in October also showed what partnership and targeted messages can achieve. This landmark initiative brought together a range of stakeholders to promote alcohol unit awareness. SWA members were proud to participate, for example, by running national TV adverts promoting responsible drinking to setting up awareness displays in distillery visitor centres.

Preliminary evaluation shows that this was Scotland's most successful ever public health awareness initiative, with every Scot challenged about their drinking at least three times during the week.

It is time the Government and trade accentuated the positive. Industry is committed to tackling alcohol misuse and, whilst more needs to be done, progress is being made. We must consistently highlight that the vast majority of people drink responsibly as part of a healthy lifestyle and that the industry plays an important social, economic and cultural role.

By doing so, the research shows that attitudes can be changed for the better.