Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. It is a legal drug which brings health, personal, cultural and social benefits for many people around the world – yet causes significant mental, physical and social harms for many others. To effectively tackle this dilemma, the alcohol field in general needs to generate and embrace new ideas and more practical approaches.
Alcohol harm reduction can be broadly defined as measures that aim to reduce the negative consequences of drinking.
A comprehensive alcohol policy needs population-level interventions, which focus on the availability and accessibility of alcohol (such as taxation and restricted licensing hours). But it needs more than this – such measures alone will not reduce alcohol related harms. In the last 20 years there has also developed an increasing (but less promoted) interest in alcohol harm reduction interventions. These tend to focus on particular risk behaviours (such as drinking and driving, binge drinking), particular risk groups (such as pregnant women, young people) and particular drinking contexts (such as bars and clubs). These approaches have broadened the sphere of interest in alcohol related harms to include social nuisance and public order problems. Very often (but not exclusively) such interventions operate at the community level.
Examples of this approach in practice are:
- Campaigns against drinking and driving (including designated driver schemes and improved public transport in the evenings)
- Serving alcohol in shatter-proof glass to prevent injuries
- Training bar staff to serve alcohol responsibly
- Promoting the safer design of drinking environments (such as bars)
- Managing the ‘night-time economy’ and the ‘drinking environment’ in order to maximise pleasure and minimise violence and anti-social behaviour
- Brief interventions advising people on moderate or controlled drinking
- Education in schools and universities advising people on moderate or controlled drinking
- Providing shelters for homeless drinkers (known as ‘Wet Centres’)
- Providing shelters for heavily intoxicated individuals (known as ‘Sobering-Up Centres’)
- They do not exclude abstinence based programs.
The benefits of alcohol harm reduction approaches are as follows:
- They are practical approaches (so much so that many people deliver alcohol harm reduction on a regular basis without realising it)
- They are realistic approaches in that they (often) do not rely upon national consensus, funding, policies or legislation
- They can be designed and delivered by local communities and stakeholders to address specific local needs and contexts
- Their short-term aim is to minimise the impacts of drinking alcohol
- Their longer-term aim is to change drinking cultures – encouraging the benefits of responsible drinking and discouraging harmful drinking
The International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA)