Big Interview

EXCLUSIVE: A new strategy in the relationship with alcohol

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Work to be done: Drinkaware chief executive Karen Tyrell
Work to be done: Drinkaware chief executive Karen Tyrell

Related tags Health and safety Beer Craft beer Low to no Social responsibility

Karen Tyrell smiles and shrugs as though the answer is so obvious the question really wasn’t worth asking. “Well, yes, I go to pubs. They’re nice places to be, aren’t they?” she says, sure that no one could doubt it.

Indeed, the new – she just about still calls herself “new” – CEO of Drinkaware is a craft beer drinker. You might find her sipping an IPA at the Rooster’s Brewery taproom near her home in Harrogate, or in a wine bar, if she fancies a wine, or catching up with friends and family over a lager in a dog-friendly pub. “It has to be dog-friendly,” she warns.

It sounds like she wants to keep everyone happy, and that is a big challenge at Drinkaware, viewed with equal suspicion by those in the trade who are quick to sniff a whiff of temperance, and those in public health who want nothing to do with what they perceive as a dissembling PR front for the drinks industry.

Between those extremes, though, Tyrell believes there’s plenty to work within her mission to reduce alcohol harm, a growing concern in the wake of the post-pandemic.

Founded in 2006 and funded by some 130 industry organisations, Drinkaware has tended to slip into the background in recent years, concentrating almost exclusively on its educational role. Expect that to change. Since she arrived in October, Tyrell and her team have been working on a new strategy, officially unveiled today (Wednesday 1 February), that aims to give the body a leadership role in reshaping our whole relationship with alcohol.

You can be hopeful. And when you help make [people’s] lives better, it’s a great feeling.”

Tyrell’s drive to shake things up is drawn from a working life, more than 20 years, in drug and alcohol services, most recently in managerial roles at the Humankind charity and before that Addaction. Crucially, though, it’s her early experience in the frontline that informs her approach.

“I’d always wanted a job where I would be helping people in some way, making a difference. As a teenager I’d worked with the elderly and people with learning difficulties but what’s compelling for me about the drug and alcohol field is the potential for people to get better. You can be hopeful. And when you help them make their life better, it’s a great feeling.”

She started volunteering and fundraising for a drug and alcohol charity then took her first paying job as a key worker at Belmarsh Prison. That’s quite a sharp introduction to the field.

“After four or five years on the front line, I moved into management roles but I’ve held onto that possibility of helping people. Awful things have happened to them, and when you support them in getting their lives together again, that’s amazing.

“It doesn’t always work, of course. That’s the downside. If you can’t help them, they’re going to die, and I’ll never forget that either. This work is hard.

“My last two jobs have been on the executive teams of national charities but being on the front line, knowing what that’s like, affects how you deal with the issues and the people.”

A different system 

There came a point, though, when the logic of that was pushing her to try something else.

“Drug and alcohol services can only pick people up once they’ve fallen off the cliff. Their lives have already unravelled. You haven’t time to pay attention to why that happened in the first place. Your focus is on delivering services.

“But I want it to be easier for people to ask for help before they get to the point when they need alcohol services. Really, I want a different system. I was looking around for how to do that, and Drinkaware is a different way of going about things.

“It was set up bring together the drinks industry, the Government and the public, and it was set up to change the relationship we have with alcohol.”

It’s true that 80% of adult drinkers drink within the CMO (chief medical officer) guidelines but that means there are 20% who don’t”

So Tyrell has taken herself upstream to attempt to lessen the turbulence she’s been dealing with downstream, to catch people before they get in too deep. The fact she’s chosen to do that with Drinkaware, an industry-backed, if independent, body, might raise an eyebrow in certain quarters but she’s clear the trade can be a positive force in what she’s trying to achieve.

“The scale of the problem is enormous. It’s true that 80% of adult drinkers drink within the CMO (chief medical officer) guidelines but that means there are 20% who don’t, millions of people who are at risk. And the industry is communicating with these consumers every day, all the time, so there’s a massive opportunity there.”

To fully seize that opportunity, Drinkaware, she believes, must start thinking bigger.

“In the past, Drinkaware has been focused on individual behaviour change. The big shift we want to make is towards societal change, partnering with Government and industry, and maximising those relationships so we can generate a conversation on a societal level.

“We’ll continue our public-facing campaign, giving information and guidance, because alcohol units, alcohol harm and so on are complicated for people to understand. It’s difficult enough for me, and I’m dealing with it every day.

“We’ll also keep giving evidence-led advice to Government and industry, researching and evaluating what works.

“The next step is coming up with a theory of change, setting out what we want to see and charting a course, which will be quite hard. We’ll be talking to stakeholders, looking to the alcohol industry for information and guidance and connecting with Government to make sure it does its part.”

Partnering with industry

Tyrell continues: “We want to take a lead in changing the conversation around alcohol and because we’re independent, representing consumers’ interest, we have a strong base from which to do that.

“There are all kinds of ways we can partner with industry, share information in different ways and plan further into the future,” she goes on. “We’re keen to relate to as many people in the industry as possible. I’m meeting everyone I can. We need to reach a consensus and we need to gain more consistency about what we do.”

Some initiatives are already under way. Over the next year, Drinkaware will be driving its digital IBA – a bit of jargon that stands for Intervention and Brief Advice, a way of people checking online whether their drinking is an issue that needs attention. It will continue educating people on the CMO’s drinking guidelines, that’s the 14 units a week thing, and keep up its support for local alcohol partnerships.

It's already delivering vulnerability training to staff working in the night-time economy and plans to do more around drink spiking and reaching under-served populations such as the LGBTQ+ community.

Of special interest to pubs, it’s also looking at what can be done around no and low alcohol products.

“Anything that can be used as a tool to moderate consumption is a good thing and our research suggests going no and low alcohol is one of the ways people reduce their drinking. More people are willing to try them now and it’s a growing market, so there’s plenty there to work with. 

“We want to see more people trying alcohol-free as a substitute for full-strength alcohol but there’s still a low understanding of these products among the public. The definitions are very confusing, and that’s something Government needs to address.

“People are becoming more conscious, though, and alcohol-free drinks are feeling more like a treat, and, importantly, they’re social.”

The pandemic meant more people were drinking at home on their own, perhaps drinking to cope, to ease their loneliness. That’s not the kind of thing we want to see, and pubs are the opposite of that”

Tyrell would like to encourage pubs to offer a bigger alcohol-free range, with draught being a potential game-changer – though she appreciates that giving over a tap is a difficult decision for many. She also welcomes premiumisation – drinking less but drinking better.

“We want to engage more with what’s working, too, such as Pubwatch and Best Bar None, and we want to initiate conversations around issues such as barring, and how bar staff can manage the matter of not serving people who are drunk. We’d like more consistency on that.” 

Her experience on the drug and alcohol front line has taught Tyrell you get results by working with people and helping them achieve their own goals rather than telling them what they ought to do. She understands pubs have perhaps more urgent problems to deal with, and above all she wants them to be there for people.

“It's a tough time for pubs. The pandemic meant more people were drinking at home on their own, perhaps drinking to cope, to ease their loneliness. That’s not the kind of thing we want to see, and pubs are the opposite of that.

“We know they are a great way to connect, to meet friends and family in a welcoming environment, and they’ve evolved a lot over the past 20 or 30 years in that respect.”

Deprivation breeds more suffering 

It’s also one factor that helps explain what academics call the ‘alcohol harm paradox’, where the most deprived sections of the population suffer greater hard than the least deprived, who drink more.

“Some people have good support networks, family, friends, their drinking environment is different. Others have debt, childhood trauma, violence in the home. All that explains the alcohol harm paradox. And if anything, it’s becoming more polarised.

“It’s great that more young people are going alcohol-free, and we have to learn from that, try to amplify it, but for others their problems are becoming more entrenched.”

Tyrell takes an holistic approach, “there’s more than one way of reducing alcohol harm”, but when it comes to policy change “we’re at a very early stage”.

She’s quietly frustrated that England still doesn’t have an alcohol harm strategy that will encompass everything from the definition of alcohol-free to the provision of alcohol services.

“We definitely need one. Scotland has one, Wales has one, Northern Ireland has one, and in a way that means there’s a natural experiment going on, with minimum unit pricing, for instance.”

Internally, Drinkaware is also “on a journey”. “Changing the way we do things will take time. We have taken on new trustees and we are reinvigorating the team here, changing the thinking, building relationships.

“This thing needs everyone’s help. I’m always learning and finding new things. What we do may not always be perfect but I want people to pick up the phone and have a chat about it.”

Or you might just bend her ear over an IPA at the pub.

Related topics Health & safety

Related news

Show more