This month, we talk to Chris Sorek, CEO of The Drinkaware Trust

This month, we talk to Chris Sorek, CEO of The Drinkaware Trust

To coincide with tomorrow's forum on responsible drinking in the UK, this month's 'just the Answer' sees Olly Wehring tackle the CEO of Drinkaware, Chris Sorek.

just-drinks: I'll try not to get personal in our interview, Chris: I'll endeavour not to leap across this table, shake you by the lapels and insist that you let me have just the one drink, for goodness sake.

Chris Sorek: You can.

j-d: If not two.

CS: That's alright.

j-d: Or three.

CS: That's up to you.

j-d: Four would help.

CS: Yeah, well, there you go. You have an issue we need to discuss.

j-d: What is the Drinkaware Trust, and how did it come about?

CS: In 2007, Drinkaware was spun out from under The Portman Group and was created as an independent charity. Then, it needed a board of directors and a chief executive. I was hired as the first CEO in November 2008. We're fully funded by the drinks industry on a blind trust basis. Our board is made up of five members of the public health community, five members of the drinks industry and three independents. That board sets a strategy based on managements' recommendations. We are here to talk to people about positively changing their behaviour in their relationship to alcohol in the UK.

Some of the work we do has been replicated in New Zealand, Australia and Europe. The governance model we use – which tends to make for a very interesting conversation - is being viewed as a model for other places around the world. We also share best practice with the likes of ICAP, the EFRD and CEPS.

j-d: Where does the UK sit in a chart of 'problem' markets for irresponsible drinking?

CS: If you take a look within Europe, it's right in the middle. We've got issues with binge drinking amongst young adults, where we're number three or four behind the likes of Denmark. When it comes to overall drinking, though, we're in the middle.

j-d: How large a role does culture play in the public's relationship with alcohol?

CS: A member of our independent medical panel has highlighted the difference between grape and grain. Beer has been brewed in the UK for around 600 years – it would only last a day or so, then it would go flat. With wine, however, you can put a cork in it and, in a year it would still be good; in two, it could be even better. So, there's a theory of a different approach to alcohol between the north of Europe and the south.

There are other reasons too. In the north, people tend to drink without food, in the south, they would never have a glass of wine without something to eat.

j-d: What about the influence of weather on excessive consumption?

CS: That's not something we've really looked at.

j-d: But, north-west Europe has more of a troublesome relationship with alcohol than the southern regions of Europe.

Chris Sorek, CEO of The Drinkaware Trust

CS: I think that's more about culture than weather. In Spain and Italy, the concern is that more young people are drinking beer they're drinking more of it and they're drinking it on the streets. That's never been the case there before: It's a cultural shift. Meanwhile, in Russia, they're glad that beer sales are going up, because vodka sales are going down.

In the UK, the rate of under 18s drinking has been dropping since 2001 – why has that been going on? Consumption among adults in the UK since 2004 has gone down – have people decided that they now know their limits?

j-d: How big a concern is the growing prevalence of vertical drinking?

CS: It's definitely playing a part when we look at how people drink now to how they used to drink. A change has definitely happened. There is a theory that people who drink sitting down drink more moderately than people standing up.

j-d: There has been recent media coverage of excessive consumption by older drinkers.

CS: By older, you mean 30 to 45?

j-d: I don't like to class myself as an older drinker; I meant 60-plus. There has also been a move to highlight excessive consumption at home, in the evening, after a day's work. Also, Drinkaware has issued guidance on pub crawls for students. Is there any group of the population you don't need to worry about?

CS: Let's look at this from a slightly different perspective. What we're trying to do is reduce the amount of alcohol that people drink in excess of what they should be drinking – that's it. We're not here to tell people not to have a drink. It's all about moderation, more than anything else. We reflect back to consumers best evidence, information and education.

j-d: How easy is it to get honest answers from consumers about their patterns of consumption?

CS: We've done it a number of different ways: in face-to-face interviews, they tend to not tell you the truth. When you do it online, they tend to tell you the truth pretty quickly. You may not get the same level of texture from online, but you'll get better and more honest answers when it's made ambiguous who the person providing the answers is.

j-d: How well do you think the consumer understands the alcohol unit concept?

CS: We know that over 85% of the people know there's a connection between alcohol and units. Ask them what the guidelines are, and that drops to around 40%. Ask them how much a unit really is, then people are not so sure. That's why we tell consumers what a unit looks like. What we're focussing on is the two-two-two-one idea: two units in a pint of beer, two units in a 175ml glass of wine, two units in a bottle of 330ml lager or alcopop, and one unit in one shot of alcohol in a tall drink. This gives people a rounded idea of what they're looking at.

We're also talking about alcohol in terms of calories – they may never get units but, if somebody's dieting, they're going to be very interested in how many calories are in a glass of wine.

We know both approaches work, they just work differently.

j-d: Do you think the recommended daily amounts for alcohol consumption are set at the right level in the UK?

CS: I can't answer that question. We follow whatever the chief medical officer's recommended level is. We're a reflection of best evidence and information. If CMO guidance says two to three, three to four, we say two to three, three to four. If they were to change that, we would change that. It's their scientific and medical evidence, not ours.

j-d: Drinkaware is fully funded by the drinks industry – how can it be impartial when offering advice to consumers?

CS: Easily. We're a blind trust. The industry pays on a voluntary basis, but the board sets the agenda for how that money is going to be spent. We're a model that everyone is looking at. The board approves strategies based on management recommendations. We're basically the consumer's best friend. Do we push the information on to them? No. Do we want to make them think? Yes. 

There can be no argument about what we put on our website, because it is evidence and it's checked by an independent medical panel.

j-d: How big a role does price play in this debate?

CS: Price is being discussed at the highest governmental levels, which is where it needs to be discussed. But, our memorandum of understanding is on the demand side, not the supply side. Price, like availability, is outside our remit.

We can't lobby and we don't do policy – we can provide information and education. This is for Government to deal with.

j-d: But, isn't a consumer likely to drink more when it's cheaper, thereby bringing it into your remit?

CS: I can't answer that question. If a consumer buys a case of beer at X-price and goes home and drinks an entire case of beer, on the demand side, we'd be asking that consumer to reconsider what they were doing. People like Alcohol Concern will be happy to talk to you about pricing

j-d: Soft drink prices in the UK on-trade are quite high, aren't they?

CS: That's a question you'd have to ask the UK on-trade. I think they can answer that better than us. But, the on-trade has been big on backing us by offering free water as an alternative.

j-d: How much of your job is leading by example? Do you go out for a drink after work?

CS: Yes, we do – we went out on Friday. But, people here will take consideration – they're aware of the research we've commissioned. If you worked in a blue jean factory, you'd know the best-fitting jeans for yourself!

j-d: When was your last hangover?

CS: A long time ago! I run, and if I have too much to drink, I'm a lousy runner the day after.