Dr Carol Emslie talks to Roisin-Alana Di Giacomo about why the media is still punishing women for their drinking habits and why the alcohol industry should take more responsibility.
It is about society and power,” says Dr Carol Emslie, Reader within the School of Health and Life Sciences and lead of the Substance Use and Misuse Research Group at GCU.
Questioning power and seeking to better understand society has been the focus of Carol’s academic career since its beginning, when, as an undergraduate sociology student, lecturers urged her to question the motivation of influential elites. These lessons ignited her curiosity and continue to impact upon her research and teaching.
“A lot of strands that I am still interested in derive from asking questions; questions which I continue to ask of our students; such as whose interest does it serve if you don’t engage with current affairs?” says Carol.
As a medical sociologist, who looks at the social aspects of health rather than the biological, Carol is interested in how gender roles impact upon health, given that these are potentially changeable.
From her PhD, which examined whether there were differences in men and women’s health when they worked in the same organisation, to examining men’s experiences of coronary heart disease, cancer and depression, Carol’s focus on gender dominates much of her research.
She joined GCU in 2012 to focus on alcohol research. Since then, she has led research on drinking within the LGBT community in Scotland, on which previously little academic work had focused.
The study conducted by Carol and her colleagues Jemma Lennox and Dr Lana Ireland, and funded by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), drew attention to the role alcohol plays in the lives and identities of the LGBT community.
In her most recent study, conducted alongside academics from the University of Glasgow, the researchers found that the media stigmatised women’s drinking. It provided evidence that women’s binge drinking was given more media coverage and was presented as problematic, despite men drinking more in reality.
As a subject, it received widespread media coverage and, somewhat ironically, the story was illustrated by images of drunken women.
“Statistically, men still drink more than women, are more likely to drink heavily, and more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, and while the gender gap in alcohol consumption is narrowing, the media’s disproportionate focus on women’s drinking skews reality.”
Carol explains that this could mask or even create health problems if the population’s drinking habits are misrepresented in the media, with twice as many men as women in Scotland dying from alcohol-related causes every year.
“Women’s drinking has always been seen as a threat to the social order in a way that men’s has not. Women are judged more harshly for their actions if they have been drinking, while men are more likely to be excused if they have been drinking.
“We need to move away from thinking that drinking is a young person’s problem. In policy terms, we have to discuss alcohol in relation to the wider population. As researchers, what we’re aiming to do is to get the whole population to look at their drinking and to reduce it rather than blaming particular sections of society. We need to talk about alcohol consumption and consider debates which are central to this, such as legislation to change alcohol pricing.”
Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol has been at the forefront of policy issues for the Scottish Government, which describes the alcohol problem as so significant that ground-breaking measures are required. Alcohol-related deaths, although declining in Scotland, continue to be almost twice those of England and Wales according to statistics (Beeston et al., 2014). Measures such as the implementation of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012, which is on hold due to the legal challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association, is one such policy that the Government hopes will address the country’s drinking culture.
“The proposal to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol is a brave thing to do,” says Carol. “Changing culture and attitudes is difficult to achieve. However, at the time, the smoking ban in public places was not popular and here we are 10 years later with impressive health benefits due to this legislation and huge popular support for it. I think that those in power must have political courage and the public need to consider in whose interest it serves to retain the status quo.
“Why is the Scotch Whisky Association, which represents global alcohol producers such as Diageo, leading this challenge against minimum unit pricing? Other alcohol producers, such as the company which makes Tennent’s lager, are backing minimum unit pricing. The best academic evidence shows that increasing price is one of the most effective ways to reduce harm from alcohol. It is hard not to conclude that the Scotch Whisky Association is prioritising profits over the health of the Scottish people.”
Carol remains optimistic that change will come through legislation in favour of people’s health and only hopes that this change comes sooner rather than later.
Away from GCU, Carol admits that, as a sociologist, it is difficult to switch off. “It’s the way you see the world and to some extent you are never removed from that. When I’m with friends and we’re talking about drinking, I’m thinking that’s interesting.”