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With a welcome spotlight being shone on rising inequality this week it is worth noting that alcohol makes it harder for poorer people to succeed in a game already heavily weighted against them.
This fact is not as widely acknowledged as it should be. A large charity told me to call elsewhere because it focuses on poverty not alcohol. Of course, specialism is necessary, but not when it means neglecting clear links. Luckily it seems they will not be ignored much longer.
On the radar
“One cause for concern is a rise in ‘deaths of despair’” said the IFS Deaton Review, launched in the UK this week, referring to deaths from suicide, drug and alcohol overdose and alcohol-related liver disease. They have overtaken deaths from heart disease in recent years (see chart).
Of course death is the most stark outcome. With luck, the review’s army of sociologists, demographers and epidemiologists will also shed light on a myriad more nuanced inequalities to which alcohol contributes. As the Alcohol Change UK campaign pointed out alcohol harms poorer people more in many other ways.
Poorer people tend to live with fewer healthcare facilities, more crime, more stress and higher levels of alcohol availability, so slipping more easily into heavy drinking. The middle classes have their difficulties, but generally nothing to compare with the perils faced by people struggling to get by.
A dicey game
The board game snakes and ladders, or chutes and ladders in the US, can help picture how circumstances alter our chances of success or mishap. Each player moves along the board and when landing on a ladder takes a big step up and when they land on a snake they slip a long way down.
But, crucially, we do not all play on the same board. Poorer people start further away from the giddy heights of their terrain. And, to reflect their less fortunate circumstances, they face more penalties and fewer bonuses, so fewer and shorter ladders, and more, longer snakes. Consequently a smaller percentage of poorer people make as much progress.
To make it more realistic we should test a skill to decide whether we necessarily slide down a snake or climb a ladder. Maybe we have to answer an exam question or, something silly like catch a ball in a cup, anything really to mimic a real life test. Adding this extra obstacle simply multiplies the extra difficulties faced by poorer people.
Now, finally, we can add another level of realism to the model, alcohol. Consuming alcohol impairs our skills, judgement and planning, so meaning we fall down even more snakes and can take advantage fewer lucky breaks. Adding alcohol to the equation tips the balance of an unfair game even further against poorer people.
At the same time advertising relentless associates alcohol with success and winning, deliberately obscuring the fact that it is far more likely to increase our chances of losing.
Clear, not less subtle
The “alcohol paradox”, the name often given to the way alcohol disproportionately harms poorer people is unhelpful, adding intrigue to something which is not mysterious. It is not paradoxical that poorer people are harmed more It is simply a testament to the combined effect of more challenging circumstances and substance blunting our abilities.
It is, of course, vital for the review unveiled this week to go beyond this simplistic model and to shed light on the details. But, as a starting point, the reason alcohol tends to compound inequality can be an unfortunate effect everyone can readily understand and find ways to avoid. With luck, more policies will emerge to make it easier. ■
A rewarding experience need not be about being in an awesome location. It can be about connecting to where we are, wherever it might be.
Seen in the right way, stumbling along the bank of a stream behind the local supermarket can rival the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
This is the promise of “drifting”, where we enrich our experience by connecting more fully to our environment through adventurous acts of walking.
It is a practice championed by psychogeographers, who include writers Peter Akroyd, Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and writer and filmmaker John Rogers.
Walking has an enormous power to stir memories of old haunts, as well as trigger new thoughts, feelings, narratives and meanings.
Go your own way
True to its avant-garde roots there are no rules. One early proponent reportedly walked through part of Germany guided by a map of London.
I improvised my own drift on the way to write this by tossing a coin to decide between possible turnings.
But we often don’t need an external input to get ourselves pleasantly lost. We can just go whichever way we are drawn.
Eventually we may start salivating at the path yet to be taken, or cooing over the rusty remains of a Victorian lamppost.
Reading about the areas we walk through can also help send us off in new directions and shed new significance on what we see.
Drifting grew out of left-wing thought, and a desire to question our relationship with a capital-driven urban environment.
But its psychological effects do not rely on our having specific political outlook. It puts us in the moment, focusing on our our journey not our destination.
And setting out with the attitude that everything is interesting, means we can never be disappointed.
This can all help enrich our relationship with the world outside our door, through our curiosity, interaction and feelings.
My own wandering has has been enhanced by acknowledging it as “a thing” which others do, and have done for generations.
Drifting may never spark a revolution, but it can deliver a reminder that valuable experiences are available to us for nothing. ■
Alcohol awareness is fast becoming the new normal, embraced by people of all walks of life. But our language is struggling to keep up.
A recent story in the Telegraph, for example, offered a tricky choice between being a part-time non-drinker, “woke abstainer” and “alcobore”.
To crowd-source alternative ideas I am offering free copies of Alcohol Companion, the ideal starting point for the budding alcobore.
Stories can be as serious, funny, personal, technical or broad as you like, but please try to be accessible.
How would you call yourself? Are you a mindful drinker, a soberista, soberisto, alcohol aware, health conscious or something else entirely.
Or does it not matter? And how should we approach this issue of drinking, labels and identity as a whole?
Is being an alcobore socially acceptable? (Asking for a friend.)
More generally, are labels for drinking habits helpful to us, or should our drinking choices be treated as incidental or private?
Please submit as an when using the form below. Your work may be published on philcain.com and elsewhere, in whole or part.
Some free copies of my book will be sent in thanks and appreciation. ■