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Reducing drug and alcohol misuse

Professor Philip Murphy
Philip Murphy, Professor of Psychology
Professor Derek Haim
Derek Haim – Professor of Psychology

Despite levels of drinking falling in the UK over the past few years, alcohol use – and misuse – is still a major public health concern. According to Alcohol Change UK, alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill health and disability among 15-49 year-olds in the UK, and the fifth biggest risk factor across all ages, while 24% of adults regularly drink over the recommended units per week.

Professors Derek Heim and Philip Murphy, from Edge Hill’s Substance Use and Misuse Lab (SUML), have been carrying out innovative research into substance use for many years. Their work continues to have a significant impact on debate and understanding around legal and illegal drug behaviours in the UK and internationally, and has informed interventions and treatment programmes that have improved, and sometimes saved, lives.

“As a team, I think we benefit from being able to look at drug use from two different perspectives. You can’t study drug use purely in terms of its impact on the brain and central nervous system, you need context, and that bringing together of biological and the social psychology is our strength.”

Philip Murphy, Professor of Psychology

Putting alcohol in context

Group of people holding champage glasses up, with a blue sky above them

Despite the well-documented health, social and economic harms associated with alcohol consumption, the development of successful interventions has been difficult. In part, this is because the research that underpins them is usually conducted in contexts that are very different to the ones in which people actually drink.

Some of the work at the SUML focuses specifically on the contextual forces behind alcohol consumption. As well as conventional lab experiments, some of the research happens in real bars and clubs while some takes place in EHU’s own bar laboratory. This simulates a real drinking environment while enabling researchers to tightly control how alcohol is consumed. Findings from these studies show that people’s thoughts and behaviours regarding alcohol vary according to who they are with, which environment they are in and whether they are assessed in lab or real-world contexts.

This research has yielded novel insights into how behaviours and perception are affected by alcohol. Researchers from Edge Hill University were the first to discover that the smell of alcohol alone is enough to lower people’s inhibitions, while other research looked at the concept of ‘beer goggles’ – adding scientific weight to the idea that alcohol consumption changes the way we perceive attractive or unattractive faces.

This research has been used by public health organisations, which are now considering psychosocial drivers of alcohol consumption in their campaigns. Professor Heim’s expertise, for example, helped shape the annual Drinkaware Monitor national survey, the results of which helped to develop more targeted campaigns. Over the five years these campaigns ran, they reached many millions of alcohol drinkers in the UK and supported action towards moderate drinking.

“The Drinkaware Monitor findings … helped to identify risky groups of drinkers that have subsequently been targeted in Drinkaware campaigns. In 2017 alone, our campaign reached 5.2milion men aged 45-64, and one in four agreed that the campaign prompted men in their age group to cut down.”

Director of Evidence, Drinkaware

Drugs and memory

Three men in an outdoor location drinking alcohol

Edge Hill’s work into the effects of illegal drugs has provided new insights into the treatment and support of thousands of people with substance use problems.

Research in this area found that stimulant drugs, such as cannabis and ecstasy (MDMA) have a negative impact on working memory, the part of the brain that helps us deal with the world around us, including the ability to update our representations of what is happening, and the ability to switch the focus of our attention.

This research has had a significant impact on public policy, being used by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) as part of the UK government’s debate by on the Class A status of ecstasy. The findings have been published globally in high profile journals, presented in international conferences and have received considerable media attention, featuring on both BBC Breakfast and Channel 4’s ‘Drugs Live – the Ecstasy Trial’. They also informed publicity campaigns about the risks of ecstasy use and informed the work of national addiction charity Addaction when developing their specialist service for 18-25 year olds.

The research continues to have implications for a vast number of people by increasing understanding of the harmful effects of illegal substances.

Shaping policy and practice

Women holding wine glasses

Given that, in 2018, the estimated social and economic cost of alcohol was £21 billion in the UK alone, finding more effective interventions is a key policy area for the government and health bodies.

Edge Hill’s research in this area has influenced the strategies and activities of major organisations, informed public health campaigns by the charities Alcohol Change UK and Drinkaware, and contributed to public understanding of substance use, impacting millions of people across the UK.

This has been complemented by direct and indirect public engagement designed to share the research findings and influence behaviour as widely as possible, including among audiences who don’t traditionally engage with psychological debate. This includes international online and offline media coverage, interviews and appearances and the development of an app to track drinking habits. Professor Murphy also provided expert knowledge on the links between addiction and poverty as part of the British Psychological Society’s campaign ‘From Poverty to Flourishing’, which continues to inform national policy in this area.

“[Edge Hill’s research] has been important in showing how the limitations of retrospective self-report alcohol measures can be overcome using smartphone technology, which helped the charity to develop the award-winning Try Dry app, which enables daily drink tracking, substantially increasing the quality of datasets about drinking levels.”

CEO, Alcohol Change UK

Our research means that…

Millions of people in the UK have engaged with campaigns informed by Edge Hill research, helping them to rethink their relationship with alcohol, reduce their consumption, and in turn, their risk of alcohol-related harm.

Health organisations are considering the contextual forces that trigger drinking and using these to inform behaviour change campaigns.

The UK government can implement better, evidence-based policies that improve support for people affected by drug and alcohol misuse, impacting on both people and the economy.

Find out more about Philip Murphy by viewing his profile on Pure Find out more about Derek Haim by viewing his profile on Pure