Lose the Booze
What are the simplest ways to reduce your alcohol intake?
Posted May 05, 2015
In 2012, a longitudinal Finnish study published in the journal Addiction examined how close a person lives to a pub or bar and whether it had any effect on risky drinking behaviour (‘Living in proximity of a bar and risky alcohol behaviours: a longitudinal study’). The study was briefly summarized in Medical News Today:
“People who live close to an on-site alcohol outlet, such as a bar, are more likely to engage in risky alcohol behavior, while people who live further away have a lower chance of dangerous drinking. The researchers analyzed data consisting of the locations of licensed on-site alcohol outlets between 2000 and 2008, which was taken from the alcohol licence register, maintained by Valvira (National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health). They then reviewed data on alcohol consumption from surveys taken from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health's (FIOH) Public Sector study from 2000 to 2009. More than 78,000 people filled out at least one survey and over 55,000 took at least two surveys. The team found that people who lived less than a kilometer away from a bar or other on-site alcohol outlet had a 13% higher chance of heavy alcohol use compared to those who lived more than a kilometer away. When a people changed the location of their house between the two study surveys, the likelihood changed. [More specifically] (i) a shorter distance raised the likelihood of risky drinking by 17%, [and] (ii) a longer distance decreased the likelihood by 17%...The authors concluded that people have a higher chance of consuming alcohol if they live close to an on-site alcohol outlet”.
This is an example of the ‘availability hypothesis’ that is well known in most areas of addictive behaviour. In my own field of gambling studies, there is a general rule of thumb that where the opportunities and access to gambling are increased, more people engage in gambling (although this is not necessarily proportional to the level of problem gambling). The relationship between accessibility and engagement in addictive behaviour is complex as many other factors come into play. However, the Finnish study on risky drinking and proximity to alcohol outlets provides empirical support for the availability hypothesis.
There are also likely to be cultural differences. A lot of my consultancy work is for Scandinavian companies and I have been fortunate to visit Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark many times. One thing that is very noticeable in these countries is that alcohol is highly taxed and it is very expensive to drink alcohol in bars. On one of my first visits to Norway in the mid-1990s, I insisted on buying a round of drinks for the six people I was with (even though they were pleading with me not to). When I was charged 350 Krone (about $45) I began to understand why. My experience is that buying rounds of drinks appears to be very rare and I noticed that many people would make their pint of lager last hours in the bar.
Moving to countries like Norway as a way of cutting down on alcohol intake is a drastic option as there are many other simple ways that we can cut down on drinking alcohol. Unfortunately, as a result of a chronic medical condition I was told to stop drinking alcohol last September (2014). In the last six months I have drank only 8 units of alcohol (and 6 of those were on New Year’s Eve). My own reduction in alcohol intake was forced upon me. I can obviously choose to ignore my doctor’s advice but I decided not to. Any woman has to make a similar decision about whether they consume alcohol and/or nicotine during pregnancy.
The remainder of this article provides some tips on the simplest ways to cut down on alcohol intake. They are not aimed at problem drinkers as they require extra external support and interventions from family, friends, doctors and/or therapists. The tips below come from a variety of sources (listed in ‘Further reading’). I don’t claim to be an expert on alcohol addiction (although I have published more than a few papers on alcohol problems over the years—again, see ‘Further reading’ below) but most of these tips are practical and common sense:
Don’t go it alone: If you really want to cut down your alcohol intake, try do it with your friends and family together. Doing it with others rather than on your own means you will have others around you going through the same thing as yourself as well as having a ready made support group.
Don’t buy rounds of drinks in pubs and clubs: If you’ve ever been out on a pub crawl with friends, you will know that you tend to drink at the pace of the quickest drinker in the group (and this may be at a quicker rate than you would ideally prefer). If you do want to drink in rounds, then try opting out every other round and/or try to drink with a smaller group of friends (as larger groups typically lead to more alcohol being drunk over the course of an evening).
Spread out your drinking and drink more slowly: Sounds obvious but it’s true. (As I noted above, in places where alcohol is very expensive this becomes a natural option). A related option is to have one alcoholic drink followed by one non-alcoholic drink throughout the evening.
Don’t buy pints, doubles or large glass drinks: When you do drink in pubs and clubs, order smaller measures (wine in a small glass rather than a large one, halves instead of pints, a bottle of lager rather than a pint of lager). All of these smaller options mean a reduced ‘alcohol by volume’ ratio (i.e., less alcohol actually consumed). If you are the kind of person who says to yourself ‘I never have more than two glasses of wine a night’, then changing to a smaller glass will have an immediate and appreciable effect in lowering overall alcohol intake.
Where possible choose non-alcoholic drinks: When you eat out or dine at home, have a soft drink, juice or water rather than wine or beer with your meal.
Dilute alcoholic drinks: If the option of a non-alcoholic drink isn’t always possible or simple doesn’t appeal, then dilute your drinks. Have a lager shandy or a white wine spritzer.
Have ‘alcohol-free’ days: If you drink every day, start by trying to drink alcohol every other day. If you drink alcohol a few times a week, try to drink just once a week. Just cutting down on your normal weekly pattern will help you to realise that you can go without alcohol.
Avoid cocktails: Cocktails often contain a lot more alcohol than people think.
Drink alcohol free beers and lagers: If you love the taste of lager or beer, there are alcohol free options. There are also an increasing number of fake cocktails (‘mocktails’).
Reward yourself for not drinking alcohol: Many people drink as a way to alleviate the stresses and strains of every day life (or to do the exact opposite—to celebrate the fact that you’ve done something well or because it is a special occasion). The money not spent on alcohol could go towards giving yourself another kind of treat or reward (a massage, the new CD you wanted, watching a film at the cinema, etc.).
Tell everyone in your social circle you’re cutting down alcohol intake: By telling everyone you know including family, friends and work colleagues, you will be more committed to not drinking alcohol than if you told no-one.
Avoid temptation: One of the key factors in any potentially addictive activity is knowing what the ‘triggers’ are (e.g., walking past a pub, watching television, having an argument with your loved one, etc.). Knowing what the triggers are can be a strategy for avoiding temptation (e.g., changing the routes on your way back home to avoid walking past your favourite pub, doing something else instead of watching television, etc.).
Get a new hobby: Changing one aspect of your routine life can also help change other aspects. Sometimes, changing one aspect of your life (such as introducing daily exercise) goes hand-in-hand with other areas of your life (drinking less alcohol, eating more healthily).
Think of the benefits of not drinking alcohol: Not drinking alcohol can bring lots of positives. In six months without alcohol I’ve lost about a stone in weight because alcohol is high in calories (and that’s without exercise!). Other benefits include more money for other things, better quality sleep, less stress (because alcohol is a depressant), and better health.
Use alcohol tracking tools: Many apps are now available to help you keep track of your alcohol intake. For instance, the MyDrinkaware tool allows you to see how alcohol is affecting you on a number of different dimensions including your health (how many units you are consuming over time), weight (how many calories you are consuming over time), and finances (how much money you are spending on alcohol over time).
References and further reading
Drinkaware (2015). Tips for cutting down when out. Located at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/make-a-change/how-to-cut-down/cutting-down-...
Drinkaware (2015). Track your drinking. Located at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/unitcalculator#unitcalculator
Griffiths, M.D. (2014). I drink, therefore I am: The UK’s alcohol dependence. Intervene, April, 20-23.
Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2010). Gambling, alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and health: findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. Addiction Research and Theory, 18, 208-223.
Griffiths, M.D., Wardle, J., Orford, J., Sproston, K. & Erens, B. (2011). Internet gambling, health. Smoking and alcohol use: Findings from the 2007 British Gambling Prevalence Survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 1-11.
Halonen, J. I., Kivimäki, M., Virtanen, M., Pentti, J., Subramanian, S. V., Kawachi, I., & Vahtera, J. (2013). Living in proximity of a bar and risky alcohol behaviours: a longitudinal study. Addiction, 108(2), 320-328.
Glynn, S. (2012). Living close to a bar increases chance of risky drinking. Medical News Today, November 7. Located at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/252462.php
NHS Choices (2015). Tips on cutting down [alcohol]. Located at: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/alcohol/Pages/Tipsoncuttingdown.aspx
Resnick, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Service quality in alcohol treatment: A qualitative study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 453-470.
Resnick, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Service quality in alcohol treatment: A research note. International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance, 24, 149-163.
Resnick, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Alcohol treatment: A qualitative comparison of public and private treatment centres. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 185-196.