A recovering alcoholic who quit drinking during the first lockdown is urging supermarkets to keep alcohol away from queues to minimize the risk of relapse and help reduce alcohol-related harm.
Experts backed the call, saying the ‘simple step’ of placing alcohol away from checkouts, where people line up, or in prominent end-of-aisle promotions would help the public make more choices healthy.
It comes amid a rise in the number of high-risk drinkers, a rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions and people spending more on alcohol in stores as they drink at home .
Matthew Penn, who describes himself as a recovering high-functioning alcoholic, quit drinking in May 2020.
The 41-year-old, from Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, runs an online recovery support group for alcoholics and childhood trauma survivors called The Matt Penn Initiative, and has written a book about his recovery .
The father-of-two said one of the biggest hurdles to recovery was queuing along the liquor aisle waiting to pay for groceries, feeling like a ‘ticking time bomb’.
He remembers “fighting myself to stay sober” on day 49 of his recovery as he stood in line next to bottles after his father died.
He told the PA news agency: ‘That single moment in a queue can have such a big impact on people’s recovery or whether they relapse or not, and it’s such a simple thing.
“Everyone I talk to on my page says one of their biggest problems is going to the shops. It can be so easily avoided.
“It’s like a tussle in your mind that’s going on all the time.”
Mr Penn said shoppers queuing next to drinks shelves put people with alcohol problems in a “very dangerous position” and started a Change.org petition for shops to redirect queues away from the liquor aisles.
He called on stores to be more considerate, adding: ‘You would think that if you can cover cigarettes, surely you could cover alcohol. This shouldn’t be encouraged as much as it is.
Critics of the suggestion acknowledged the seriousness of alcohol addiction, but said new restrictions would unfairly target moderate consumers and businesses.
Government data shows millions of Britons engage in hazardous drinking, with a rise in the number of drinkers considered to be at high risk.
Experts said the factors include switching to drinking at home, trying to cope with pandemic-related uncertainty and forming new habits.
A report published last week found spending on alcohol in UK and off-license supermarkets has more than doubled since 1987, to £27.1bn in 2020, from £10.7bn.
NHS data shows alcohol use was the main reason for around 280,000 admissions to English hospitals in 2019/20, up 2% from 2018/19.
There were nearly 980,000 admissions in 2019/20 where the primary reason for hospitalization or a secondary diagnosis was alcohol-related, 4% more than in 2018/19.
To support people in recovery and reduce the cost of alcohol harm to society, a simple first step for supermarkets would be to remove alcohol from checkouts
Professor Adam Winstock, a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist, said the appeal was a “very reasonable request” from retailers, who should “seize the opportunity to encourage people to adopt lifestyles healthier”.
This would make shopping an active choice rather than a “professional by-product of going to the supermarket”, he added.
He said the parallel was that supermarkets were removing sweets from checkouts so children wouldn’t “harass” their parents for them.
He said: ‘The fact that this added temptation will cause people who are trying not to drink to buy alcohol, I totally understand, and I think it would just take a bit of effort for supermarkets to rearrange checkouts to reduce visibility and temptation. of alcoholic beverages near the tills.
Government-funded research has found that people buy more alcohol when placed in prominent places, such as at the end of an aisle.
Dr Alison Giles, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said: “Alcohol strategically placed in supermarkets is designed to increase purchases and consumption, which subsequently leads to increased harm.
“To support people in recovery and reduce the cost of alcohol harm to society, a simple first step for supermarkets would be to keep alcohol away from checkouts.”
Dr Jyotsna Vohra, director of policy and public affairs at the Royal Society for Public Health, said the government should incentivize retailers by considering commercial price reductions when they show they are taking health seriously by improving amenities.
She said customers are “bombarded” by choice, finding it “difficult to say no to unhealthy products, including alcohol”.
She added: “There have been advancements in supermarkets, such as removing junk food from checkouts, but like many we believe there is much more that can and should be done to support healthier choices in supermarkets.”
Professor Julia Sinclair, chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said addiction services needed adequate funding to meet current and growing demand.
She said: “Retailers have an important role to play in not encouraging unsafe levels of consumption through their promotions and displays.
“However, system-wide interventions are needed so that people who drink at high risk can get help as soon as possible and before they reach a crisis point.”
The Portman Group, which receives funding from the beverage industry and whose companies have signed up to its code of practice, said it recognizes harmful drinking is a serious problem.
Chief executive Matt Lambert continued: “However, we believe that further restrictions on alcohol sales, such as separate queues or full alcohol lockdowns, are disproportionate and would unfairly target consumers and consumers. moderate businesses.”
The British Retail Consortium said: “Retailers take their responsibility for the health of their customers very seriously and follow strict rules when it comes to the sale of alcohol.”