We need to change how we approach alcohol-related violence

Lucy Bryant
Monday, 15 June 2020

Last year, two in every five (39 per cent) violent incidents in England and Wales were alcohol-related. In fact, the proportion hasn’t dipped below this at any point in the last ten years.

What’s more, newly published research shows the burden of this violence falls disproportionately on the most disadvantaged among us, driven by the highly disproportionate rates of alcohol-related domestic and acquaintance violence that these groups experience. Analysis of Crime Survey for England and Wales data showed these groups experienced as many as 14 times the number of alcohol-related domestic violence incidents per 1,000 people compared to the most advantaged.

The implications of lockdown

Covid-19 – both the public health crisis and our response to it – has seen these findings take on new urgency. First, reports of domestic violence have risen dramatically since lockdown measures began. In the UK, the National Domestic Abuse helpline saw calls rise by 25 per cent within weeks of lockdown beginning, and the UN Population Fund predicts 'at least 15 million more cases of domestic violence' globally due to such restrictions.

Further, our national alcohol consumption and drinking patterns have changed. With pubs and bars closed, drinking (and by extension some associated harms) has largely moved to private spaces. In March – only a few weeks into lockdown – alcohol sales in supermarkets rose by 22 per cent, and in off-licenses by 31 per cent.

What Covid-19 can tell us about inequality

Finally, we have become all too familiar with the intensely harmful effects of inequality. Deaths from Covid-19 are twice as high in the poorest areas of England and Wales, and the Covid-19 restrictions have hit these groups hard too – children eligible for free school meals going hungry as schools closed is just one example. These socioeconomic inequalities intersect with other inequalities, particularly ethnicity, with rates of diagnosis of Covid-19 almost three times as high for black men compared to white men.

With domestic violence, alcohol consumption, and the harms of inequality all apparently increasing, the highly disproportionate rates of alcohol-related violence – particularly domestic violence – that those in the lowest socioeconomic groups were already experiencing could worsen. I question whether current policy is equipped to address this.

The provision of domestic violence services in England and Wales was inadequate before Covid-19 began. The sector is under a 'sustained funding crisis', and figures for 2019 show 60 per cent of those referred to domestic violence refuges were turned away. This affects some groups to a greater degree than others. Those in the lowest socioeconomic groups might rely most heavily on publicly-funded resources, and when these close, this '[reduces] the propensity of victims to escape violence'.

Further, while alcohol cannot be considered a cause of domestic violence, there is consensus that it acts as a contributory factor, with population consumption levels linked to domestic violence rates. Some have also suggested that the regressive gender stereotypes contained in some alcohol marketing might also contribute to the normalisation of this violence.


As such, population level alcohol interventions should form part of a suite of policies addressing domestic violence. For example, the World Health Organization advocates for alcohol price regulation as 'effective in preventing intimate partner violence'. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all acted on this evidence, introducing or set to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol, a policy modelled to disproportionately benefit the health outcomes of the most deprived groups, suggesting the potential to do the same for victimisation.

Westminster Governments have remained an outlier. Not only has the MUP not been enacted, but alcohol duty has not increased with inflation for seven of the last eight years. Policymakers should consider whether their current path can truly generate the transformative change we need.

Lucy Bryant is the Research and Policy Officer for the Institute of Alcohol Studies.