Welcome to my Blog


My name is Sally Marlow and I research alcohol problems in women at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.  I started this blog to communicate the science, psychology and culture underlying drinking problems, and to put right some of the misinformation out there about women and how they use alcohol.  All views expressed here are my own.

Never read the reviews

I recently did another Radio 4 documentary, Painful Medicine, about being addicted to painkillers.  You can find it here Radio 4: Painful Medicine

There were some reviews, and they certainly covered the spectrum.  Whilst Catherine Nixey at The Times was good enough to pick the programme as a Radio Choice, her review opened as follows:

It’s not the most exciting programme opening I’ve ever heard. “I’m outside a pharmacitst in London” says presenter and scientist Dr Sally Marlow, “and I’m just going to pop in and buy a codeine-based painkiller.” I won’t ruin the suspense of whether she gets any.

I will admit to laughing.  She did then go on to be quite kind about the programme.

Meanwhile Priya Elan at the Guardian wrote a fabulous review saying the only thing wrong with the programme is that it wasn’t a series.  And as this is my blog, I’m posting that one up here Guardian review of Painful Medicine


I want to share with you some definitions of the adjective mortal.

From the Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com)

To be very, very drunk. Contrary to the guy before me, the word ‘mortal’ is also used in the North-East of England (ie: Newcastle and Sunderland)
Last night, I was proper mortal!!!!

And now read this from the Oxford Dictionary website http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/  bearing alcohol in mind when you read each of the different usages.

Of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being subject to death:all men are mortal
Causing or liable to cause death; fatal:a mortal disease FIGURATIVE the scandal appeared to have struck a mortal blow to the government
(Of a battle) fought to the death:the screams of men in mortal combat
(Of an enemy or a state of hostility) admitting or allowing no reconciliation until death:a mortal foe
(Of a feeling, especially fear) very intense:parents live in mortal fear of children’s diseases

INFORMAL Conceivable or imaginable:he knew every mortal thing you did
Very great:he was in a mortal hurry
DATED Long and tedious:for three mortal days it rained
Christian Theology Denoting a grave sin that is regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace:Often contrasted with venial.she had committed a mortal sin

If it wasn’t so tragically spot on I’d describe it as brilliant. With the exception of the last one of course – let’s keep morality out of it, especially the religious variety.

What do we mean by “addictive”?

There’s a news story today that sunbathing may be addictive. You can read it here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-27866407

I am all for exploring possible addictions which may not currently be recognised as addictions by doctors or the scientific community.  I even made a programme on whether food addiction exists last year, which you can find here:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s4g7v

However, there’s a problem.  By using the word “addictive” to describe behaviours or use of substances which don’t actually have any of the characteristics of addiction, (and by characteristics of addiction I mean things like tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, being unable to stop and being out of control), we effectively weaken the word addiction.  Many of us use the word to describe how we feel about things we like very much – we may talk of being addicted to chocolate, or to House of Cards.  I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.

However, these are not really addictions – they don’t impact our lives overly much, destroy relationships, or cause us real harm.  We may do more of them than we want to, but that’s not the same as being addicted.  By using the two, we create confusion, and don’t help with the public understanding of the devastation true addiction can bring.

Alcohol in the mornings

I have a hunch that alcohol stories tend to run on the news in the mornings, and are dropped by the evening.  A case in point was yesterday, when it was reported that the government are going to increase fines four-fold for drink driving and disorderly behaviour, amongst other things.

Cue the interviewee in a mid morning television news slot to talk about how anyone who is drunk and disorderly is probably unemployed, on benefits and an alcoholic (whatever that word actually means).  Er, no actually, check out Friday and Saturday nights in town centres for disorderly behaviour, and look at both police and A&E admission statistics if you really want to know who is arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

And why didn’t this story survive until the evening broadcasts?  I totally understand that more news happens, that it happens during the day, and that new news bounces old news.   I know this is one case, but I think there might be a trend, and that alcohol stories are considered as good day-time fillers, but not as weighty night-time news.  Fortunately my next study involves watching the news for a month and examining how alcohol stories are treated, so I can test my theory.  I’ll let you know what I find.

PS I’ve just emerged from an extended period of jury service – three months.  Expect a bit more action on the blog now that I’m back at my desk.

The World Cup: alcohol’s relationship with football

Today a briefing from Alcohol Concern dropped into my inbox, with the following highlights


  • In 2010, the FIFA World Cup 2010 tournament was associated with a 37.5% rise in assault attendances across 15 hospital emergency departments on England match days.
  • It’s also been reported that incidents of domestic violence increased by up to 30% on the days of England’s fixtures during the World Cup in 2006.
  • Research examining data from a police force in the north west of England across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups found the risk of domestic violence rose by 26% when the English national team won or drew, and a 38% increase when the national team lost.

I know I write this blog to comment on alcohol issues, but what more is there to say on this one? The facts speak for themselves.

You can read the full briefing here:  Alcohol Concern football briefing 2014


Pound Pub continued

I caught a train last Friday to London from the North East.  Next to me were four men from Stockton, which you might remember is not only my home town, but is also where the UK’s first Pound Pub has recently opened.  These men were discussing the pound pub.  Highlights of the conversation:  bemusement that the Pound Pub opens at 8am; shock that you can drink that cheaply; and a suggestion that it might be a good thing, as “all the pissheads are in the same place”.

The relationship between alcohol and violence

A story which has received wide coverage recently is the drop in violent crime in the UK.  The Guardian has a good summary and comment here www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/23/alcohol-prices-violence-study-binge-drinking

Like other articles, it makes the link between the increasing cost of alcohol and decreasing violence.  It’s difficult to get to the bottom of the relationship between alcohol and violence.  There is no doubt that there is a relationship, but it’s almost impossible to prove causality.  The only way really to do that would be to take some fairly large groups of randomly selected people, give one group no alcohol, the next group a little bit of alcohol, the group after quite a lot of alcohol, and the final group tons of alcohol, and then see what happens, and if one group would behave more violently than another.  For good measure, you’d have to set the experiment in a realistic situation, but you’d also have to exclude anything else which have been shown to have links with levels of violence, and these could be internal such as tendencies in a person’s personality, and/or external such as hot weather….. to do this would be very expensive, difficult, and it probably would not pass the strict ethical rules which surround scientific testing.  However, testing things in this way, ie by randomised controlled trial, is considered the ultimate in terms of scientific evidence, because it demonstrates cause.  Without it we cannot say that alcohol causes violence.

Yet there clearly is a link. Alcohol is implicated in the vast majority of domestic violence cases, and is around half of all violent crime, including assault and rape.  Alcohol makes people less inhibited – maybe it turns of the checks and balances which prevent violence in some people.  However we all know that different people behave in different ways when drunk, and often these are polar opposites:  sad, happy, argumentative, withdrawn, gregarious.  Difficult as it might be to explore the relationship between alcohol and violence, we need to keep trying, and if a randomised controlled experiment is not possible, then we need to use other ways to investigate.

A cautionary tale

I opened up my blog this lunchtime, turned to a colleague, and jokingly asked if she had any stories about women and alcohol.  I had no idea that she is currently dealing with the fallout of something, which she told me about.  She asked me to write about it anonymously.  Apologies if I get some of the details wrong, but the gist will be true to life.

During the Christmas/New Year holidays, my friend was in a pub with some family members, and a stranger joined them.  They had a few drinks and everyone got a bit merry.  The same stranger was in the pub on New Year’s Eve, and after a few drinks, my friend let him kiss her.  No more than that.  She regretted it the next day, but when he kept pestering her to go out for a drink with him, she did so.  It became clear to her that she didn’t fancy him, but also became clear that he wanted more from her than she would ever give him.  She’s a pretty straight talking woman, so she let him know that she didn’t want to date him, and didn’t think it could go anywhere.

He however would not take no for an answer.  Since that time she has been bombarded with text messages from him which she does not respond to; heard from other people that he’s given them the impression they are a couple; found he’d paid for tickets for her; heard that he turned up at a Ladies’ Night in a local pub and wangled his way in (she was supposed to be there, but had bailed out at the last moment); and has even seen his vehicle parked at the end of her road when he doesn’t live anywhere near her.

She thinks he interpreted her drunken kiss four months ago as more than it was.  She’s got to the point where she’s concerned, and is ready to take out a restraining order if it gets any worse.

So, be careful who you kiss when you’ve had a few.  You never know what it might lead to.

Parallel lessons for alcohol from cigarettes

Another high profile report from liver specialists about the harm excessive drinking can cause to the liver BBC Scandal of liver disease March 2014

There’s a parallel here between what is happening with alcohol, and what happened with cigarettes.  It was only once lung specialists and oncologists started flagging up the dangers of smoking that the harm caused by cigarettes was taken seriously by both government and by the general public.  The direct link between cigarettes and lung diseases is very clear.  Currently liver specialists are doing for alcohol what lung specialists did for cigarettes – highlighting the physical health risks.  There are, of course, other risks caused by both alcohol and cigarettes, but the health risks are in the easiest for some to recognise and accept. They are less controversial than, say, mental health issues associated with alcohol, or high rates of domestic violence.

Forget Pound Shops, we now have Pound Pubs

In Stockton-on-Tees, there is a pub rebranding itself as the Pound Pub, selling half pints for less than a pound, and a pint of beer for £1.50.  I know Stockton well from a personal perspective –  it’s where I was born, and I spent the first sixteen years of my life there.  I have relatives living there still, and I visit fairly regularly.  I also know Stockton well from a work perspective – the north east of England has some of the highest rates of alcohol problems in the UK, and it’s an area which comes up time and time again when I’m looking at facts and figures for A&E admissions, alcohol-related arrests, and liver disease.  The last thing it needs is a pub selling very cheap booze.  BBC News covers this story – a short video is here BBC News: Stockton’s Pound Pub