Alcohol Policy must catch up with the changing age profile of the UK

By: Dan Holden

In recent weeks the Government has sparked fresh controversy about its commitment to tackling alcohol harm, by tweeting out a video promoting the return of duty free allowances for tobacco and alcohol. While Health Secretary Matt Hancock has distanced himself from these ads, questions remain about the extent to which the Government’s approach to alcohol is aligned with the needs of our communities – and nowhere is this more the case than in relation to its approach to older people and alcohol.

Over the past five years ILC has been working as part of the Drink Wise, Age Well partnership, to shed light on what works in supporting people to make healthier choices about alcohol as they age. Earlier in the summer we held a roundtable to discuss how policy needs to adapt to the learning that has emerged from the programme’s work with older adults in communities across the UK.

We know that, at the moment, stereotypes about age and drinking risk skewing policy away from the very real needs of older people. Although previously 16-24-year olds drank the most compared to other age groups, people aged 55 to 64 currently drink more in England relative to any other age group. This is reflected across the UK – hazardous and harmful drinking in the UK is declining except among people aged 50 and over and more than half of alcohol related deaths occur in those aged 50 to 69.

Despite this, older adults are not often given the support and treatment they need in dealing with alcohol issues. Our services have been built on what are often unconscious assumptions about who is most in need of support, and the result is that these services are often indirectly and sometimes even directly discriminatory against older people. For example, older people who are alcohol dependent are less likely than younger people to be in treatment and previous research by the Substance Misuse and Ageing Research Team, funded by Alcohol Change UK, showed that three-quarters of residential alcohol rehab services have an arbitrary age cut-off.

Although the recent Prevention Green Paper recognised both the need to promote healthy ageing, and the need to address alcohol dependency and reduce alcohol harm, it did not make links between the two agenda. Furthermore, with the Government’s Alcohol Strategy apparently stalled it is not clear how this agenda will be progressed in future.

Participants at our roundtable argued that there needs to be explicit recognition of the need for alcohol policy to be age-proofed, and for us to take a whole life course approach to reducing alcohol dependency and alcohol harm. We identified a number of areas in which policy solutions were needed including:

  • Ensuring support focuses on the underlying factors of problem drinking.
  • Ensuring that we develop specific policies to meet the needs of vulnerable groups including people with dementia and those from low socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Considering whether separate guidelines around recommended alcohol consumptions should be developed to take into account the greater impact alcohol has on older people.
  • Developing public campaigns to tackle stigma that prevents people from seeking help.

Participants felt that there was real potential for ‘easy wins’ to come from better informing older people about harmful drinking – if guidelines were more understandable and relatable to the general public – but the first step is ensuring that the needs of older adults are explicitly recognised at the national level. The signals sent at a national level have a significant impact on the actions of funders and commissioners at the local level.

To read more about the agenda for change identified by Drink Wise Age Well participants, you can read the Charter For Change here.

Dan Holden

Senior Research Fellow, ILC

Dan joined the ILC in May 2018 as a Research Fellow. Prior to joining the ILC Dan was a research consultant at ComRes, specialising in political and social research. Whilst at ComRes Dan was responsible for much of the organisations high profile voting intention research, for clients including the Independent, BBC and The Sun. Dan also worked with social research clients including the Resolution Foundation, NASUWT, the LGA and the Chartered Institute of Building in conducting large scale quantitative, qualitative and mixed methods research projects. Before working at ComRes Dan worked at the Smith Institute as a researcher, contributing to many research projects, the Institute’s events programme and the Institute’s role as secretariat to an All Party Parliamentary Group. Dan’s analysis has appeared in print and other media forms including for the Guardian, BBC 5 Live, the Independent, the New Statesman and Public Finance magazine.