Drinking problems (and some solutions)

Image by Samir Weres. Some rights reserved.

“It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.” 
 “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” 
 “You ask a glass of water.”

― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I’ve been thinking a lot about our relationship with alcohol recently. This article in the Economist about alcohol misuse in America particularly peaked my interest.

Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 106,765 Americans died each year from alcohol-related causes such as liver disease, alcohol poisoning and drunk driving — more than twice the number of overdoses from all drugs and more than triple the number of opioid overdoses in 2015.

The trend, particularly among women, minorities and the elderly in America is getting worse.

That’s not good because the health implications of alcohol are, as the article implies, very bad. David Nutt is one of the most interesting scientists in the field and in this programme for the BBC he talks about how alcohol would fare in the current testing regime for drugs were it to be tested for the first time today. His conclusion is that by current standards we would recommend something like one glass of wine a year.

The social implications of alcohol are no less problematic. The total tax take from alcohol is about £11 billion but the costs of policing Friday and Saturday night drinking hotspots is billions alone, not counting the impact of crime on citizens.

At the moment Brits drink more than Americans, but the trend on this side of the Atlantic is in the opposite direction. Each year we’re drinking less.

BGV portfolio company Club Soda’s Mindful Drinking Festivals and have tapped into this brilliantly. There are a whole host of new drinks companies springing up and the established brands are also creating new product lines that cater to people who would rather remember their evenings. It’s interesting to watch the large drinks companies realise they have a problem.

I do drink but I’m also acutely aware that alcohol is a habit and the amount I drink is socially influenced, particularly when it comes to work events. I totted it up and I go to nearly a hundred work-related evening events a year and alcohol is the norm. Although it was a bit awkward for us (as Nesta is one of our investors), I did like Laura from Club Soda’s public return of their New Radical Award. Nesta aren’t the only culprits of this but she’s absolutely right.

While we always make sure there are non-alcoholic alternatives at BGV evening events, we do still assume that some people will want alcohol. Perhaps we shouldn’t. This piece by Bethany Crystal at USV got me thinking — it sounds like a worthwhile challenge to create clear-headed evening events.

Alcohol, health and windswept islands

Alcohol has been on my mind a lot recently. Perhaps it’s the New Year and the media coverage around ‘dry’ January, but I’ve also just read Amy Liptrot’s wonderful book The Outrun which like H is for Hawk combines a story of recovery with a story about nature. In this case it’s the story of Amy’s recovery from alcoholism in her early 30s, via an addiction clinic in east London and returning home to her native Orkney for two years. Aside from making you want to visit strange, beautiful, desolate, windy Orkney it also makes you think about addictions.

Then there’s been the co-ordinated campaign to reduce levels of drinking in the UK that has taken the form of updating the guidance for the amount we should drink. It hasn’t gone down incredibly well because the evidence around exactly what level of alcohol is ‘safe’ is patchy to say the best. Michael Moseley talks through some of the issues here as well. While setting guidelines is part of the equation it’s not the only thing that will change behaviour.

There are some signs that younger people today have a much healthier relationship with alcohol than my generation did in our 20s. But alcohol is one of the three biggest behaviour related causes of death in the UK (the other two being smoking and obesity, predominantly through diabetes) so is an important social issue. One thing we’ve done at BGV is funded Club Soda and they’re doing some amazing things using behavioural science. It’s not just about quitting but also helping you cut down a bit or stick if that’s what you’re looking for. They have a great online community and also run a lot of events which you can find here.

Bottle keep

Another Long Now idea I liked this week was one that Alexander Rose introduced me to called ‘bottle-keep’ which originates in Japan. It’s the opposite of a tab in a bar where you drink for a while and then pay for your drinks at the end. At a bottle-keep bar you buy a bottle of drink (usually whisky) and it’s kept for you for future visits if you don’t finish it on your first go.

We had lunch in the office on Thursday and Ian Kennedy told the story of how on a slightly drunken night out in Tokyo he and a friend had stumbled into a random small bar. When they went to the bar, the owner disappeared out the back and came back with a bottle of whisky with the Ian’s name on it. It turned out that he’d been there 8 years previously with his father and the bar owner recognised him and had gone to find his bottle-keep.

The team at Long Now are planning on using a similar system for the new Long Now Salon which they’re fundraising for at the moment. As Alexander told us, “It turns out that the history of alcohol is pretty much the history of civilisation.” so expect lots of interesting ideas (and drinks) when it opens — hopefully in the not too distant future.