SACHA | ‘Make mine an app’: using technology to tackle excessive drinking

Digital technology could hold the key to helping prevent lives in Scotland being harmed by alcohol, according to three projects carried out by students at the University of Edinburgh.


SCOTLAND has a dual identity when it comes to alcohol: Scotch whisky distilleries export more than 1.1 billion bottles a year to 116 markets, instilling a source of national pride for many people; yet figures released in June by Public Health Scotland show that alcohol consumption north of the Border is still higher than in England or Wales.

The damage caused by excessive drinking was highlighted during summer projects undertaken by three groups from the University of Edinburgh that participated in the Students As Change Agents (Sacha) programme. Each group worked with campaign organisation Alcohol Focus Scotland to examine, “How can Scotland prevent lives being harmed by alcohol?”.

Students from all year groups and all disciplines come together to take part in Sacha’s project, with this summer’s cohort featuring team members from countries including the UK, China, India, Indonesia, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, and the United States. Between them, they are studying a wide variety of subjects, ranging from biology and engineering through to education, history, law, and literature.

Each of the three alcohol projects – which were sponsored by the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, part of the Edinburgh & South-East Scotland City Region Deal – came independently to the conclusion that digital technology has an important role to play in tackling the issue. They compiled reports detailing their recommendations for Alcohol Focus Scotland and presented their findings through short videos and an online presentation on 30 June.

Switching the focus from crime to health

One of the groups adopted an approach focused solely on an app, which it called “Alcohol in Focus”. It suggested the content for the app could be created by students, giving them opportunities to develop skills, while also engaging them in the topic.

The group recommended creating eight features within the app:

  • health information and statistics;
  • videos;
  • a live question and answer feature, through which users could interact anonymously with health experts to seek advice;
  • the ability to share stories to Instagram to broaden conversations about alcohol;
  • podcasts;
  • a calculator to show how many units of alcohol and calories were in individual drinks, along with their carbon footprint;
  • a calendar, so users could keep track of how many units they had drunk each week;
  • and a scanner, which could be used to find out how many units of alcohol are contained within individual products.

The team targeted 15 to 25 year olds specifically because it felt there was a gap in alcohol education for this age group. It suggested shifting the emphasis away from the anti-social behaviour caused by drinking to focus instead on the damage caused to individuals’ health by alcohol, in order to discourage underage drinking.

Highlighting the scale of the problem of underage drinking, the group pointed out that on average 17 teenagers aged between 15 and 19 are admitted to hospital each week in Scotland for alcohol-related conditions. Some 83% of 16 to 24 year olds in Scotland drink alcohol, with 42% drinking more than the recommended safe weekly limit.

Gathering data on underage alcohol sales

An app was also one of the central tenets of another group’s approach to tackling the problem. It suggested building technology into mobile phones to allow users to measure the concentration of alcohol in their blood.

Another part of the group’s action plan focused on three As – affordability, attractiveness, and availability. It recommended: hiding alcohol out of sight in shops, in a similar way to cigarettes; having fewer stands selling alcohol at public events; and introducing tougher regulations for alcohol on television.

The final plank of the group’s strategy centred around exponential fines for adults who buy alcohol for underage drinkers. The idea was influenced by the police’s use of escalating fines for people who broke coronavirus restrictions.

Having been unable to locate data on underage drinking, the group carried out its own survey on social media to gather information. It found that 155 of its 288 respondents had been sold alcohol when they were younger than the legal drinking age.

Making more information available

Building technology into mobile phones to allow them to measure blood-alcohol levels was also a feature of the third group’s strategy. A comparison was drawn with apps that allow people with diabetes to measure their blood-sugar level.

The group recommended introducing posters in drinks aisles and at checkouts in shops, and in pubs and bars, to warn people of the damage to health caused by alcohol. Changing attitudes lay at the heart of the group’s proposed labelling and advertising campaign, with an aim to tackle Scotland’s “loose and flippant attitudes” towards drinking and to destigmatize non-drinking.

It presented designs for posters, all with quick-response (QR) codes that the public could scan to find out more information. Its suggested messages for labels stopped short of the shocking images used on cigarette packets in some countries to deter smokers, with an emphasis on reducing drinking rather than prohibition.

The third element to its recommendations was a focus on promoting less-toxic alternatives to alcohol, such as drinks containing active botanical ingredients, and “Alcarelle”, a synthetic alcohol substitute being developed by David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. It likened the promotion of alternatives to the way in which vaping was being seen by some as a useful steppingstone away from smoking tobacco.

Useful ideas to explore in more detail

Each of the groups worked with members of staff from Alcohol Focus Scotland to gather information and shape their ideas. The teams also received support from Sacha’s project workers within the university.

Megan McGarrigle, Alcohol Focus Scotland’s youth engagement officer, said: “It’s interesting to see young people’s take on the subject, and in relation to what young people can do themselves. It’s been great to be part of this project.”

Aidan Collins, the charity’s engagement and partnerships manager, added: “Seeing your enthusiasm gives us new enthusiasm for the work and reminds us about how important it is. There are a few ideas in there that we’ll think about as a team and explore a bit more.”

By Peter Ranscombe


Find out more about the Students as change agents (SACHA) programme.

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