Alcohol tags: are they doing more harm than good?

In a bid to reduce the number of alcohol-related crimes in the UK, alcohol tags (or sobriety tags) have been given to a select few who have been found guilty of such crimes. This means that for a set period of time, they won’t be able to drink or else face the consequences of the law. But has this approach considered those with alcohol addiction or are they being set up for failure? We take a closer look at the research and offer suggestions on how the programme could be improved.

How does the technology work?

Alcohol monitoring tags are electronic ankle bracelets that detect alcohol consumption through the skin using transdermal methods. They monitor individuals convicted of alcohol-related crimes by taking sweat samples every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day. Any alcohol consumption will be detected and authorities will be notified.

If caught drinking while wearing an alcohol monitoring tag, the person may face legal penalties such as fines, probation, community service, or even imprisonment, depending on the severity of the offence and their criminal history. Violating the monitoring programme’s terms may also result in the revocation of probation or parole and additional jail or prison time.

What did the results of the pilot study show?

Overall, the results of the initial pilot studies for alcohol abstinence tags were highly positive, with a 90-95% success rate, but what exactly is meant by success rate? In these studies, the success rate was determined by whether or not the individual completed the sentence. Unfortunately, there was no mention of the following:

  • If the individual was suffering from some form of drug or alcohol addiction
  • How the individual coped during their sentencing
  • A follow-up on how the individuals coped after finishing their sentences
  • The overall thoughts of the individual on whether or not they found as though it made a long-lasting impact on their life

It seems as though researchers may have been a little too focused on the positives when it comes to alcohol monitoring. With this narrow perspective, we’re left with a gaping hole in our understanding of whether or not this technology actually works.
As it stands, the general public can only access what the UK government deems as positive, leaving us with more questions than answers.

What are the potential implications of alcohol tags?

In order to highlight the potential issues with alcohol tags, we have to take what is already known about addiction coupled with real-life experiences from the BBC3 documentary ‘Tagged’, which follows the lives of those assigned with ankle tags. From this, we are able to hypothesise the following implications:

Alcohol monitoring tags may be putting a target on the backs of those with alcohol addiction

Forcing someone to go cold turkey without medical support could do more harm than good. If an individual suffering from alcohol addiction is left with the option of experiencing potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms or paying a fine and having sentences increased, which option do you think they will choose?

In the BBC3 documentary ‘Tagged’, John (who was given an alcohol tag for a previous offence) admitted that he wasn’t able to control himself when he was with his friends, despite being banned from drinking alcohol:

“I got dragged into having a few shots with my mates and it went a bit far, really. It ended up as an all-nighter”


John was given a court date, a fine and a final warning on his conduct.

While penalties are necessary when laws are broken, if we want to prevent recidivism, we need to rethink our approach when it comes to alcohol addiction. If the punishments for breaking abstinence result in more issues with the law, it’s essentially creating more criminals and not addressing the issue of addiction.

So instead of setting people up for failure, we need to prioritise the individual’s health and well-being by providing the necessary medical care, such as alcohol detox, and support to help them overcome their addiction.


Abstinence tags may work for the short term, but what happens after the sentence is over?

It’s a valid concern, especially considering the high relapse rates among those recovering from alcohol addiction. In England alone, it has been reported that 70% of recovering alcoholics will relapse during the first year, with the first three months being the most crucial. With this timeframe in mind, coupled with how long the tag sentences are (up to 120 days), can it be really expected that the individual recovers successfully? UKAT aims to address these questions and more in our ITV appearance on 24 April.

That’s why it’s important to look beyond just the monitoring technology itself and consider what happens after the sentence is over.

Support systems, aftercare programmes, and ongoing therapy can all play a critical role in helping individuals stay on track and avoid relapse. By focusing on comprehensive care that extends beyond just the monitoring period, we can give people the tools they need to succeed in the long term.

After all, the goal shouldn’t just be to keep people sober during their sentence; it should be to help them stay sober for life. Rehab centres can provide the necessary help to achieve sobriety as they take a step back from focusing on the substance itself and place the attention on the individual. This type of treatment aims to make connections with the person, enrol them in therapies to address deep-seated traumas and teach healthy techniques to deal with mental health issues.

The “Big Brother” effect could be harmful to the addict

In the “Tagged” documentary, James was found guilty of robbery and was subsequently assigned a GPS tag to monitor his whereabouts. The primary objective of the tag was to track James constantly in order to make sure that he didn’t enter certain areas or be home by a certain time. This led him to experience considerable anxiety and paranoia.
James was quoted as stating:

“They’re watching me all the time with this (shows GPS tag on ankle)… yeah, tracking me all the time… it makes me feel more anxious and paranoid… yeah.”

James then smokes crack cocaine from a pipe and admits that he is feeling better afterwards. This is a classic sign of using drugs as an emotional dependency. It’s not clear whether James was experiencing these feelings before using drugs or as a result of using drugs, but either way, it’s clear that he was relying on them as a way to cope with his emotions.


This demonstrates the ineffectiveness of monitoring devices in addressing addiction. James should have been guided towards the right way of dealing with mental health issues, rather than feeling the only way was through Class A drugs.

The same concept can be applied to alcohol monitoring tags. If a person uses alcohol as a coping mechanism for anxiety or paranoia, the introduction of the sobriety tag may further exacerbate these worries.

Therefore, it’s important to recognise that individuals with addiction need help and support rather than being solely viewed as societal menaces. Monitoring devices should not be viewed as the solution to addiction but rather as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. These types of treatment plans aim to provide safe detoxes, a recovery plan and a safe place to express thoughts and emotions.


Final thoughts

To achieve lasting recovery from alcohol addiction, it is often necessary to address the root causes of the addiction, such as trauma, mental health issues, or other factors, through an alcohol rehabilitation programme.

Sobriety tags can be a useful tool for enforcing abstinence and providing accountability, but they should be used in conjunction with comprehensive treatment and support to address the underlying issues and help the person achieve lasting recovery.

You can hear UKAT’s full thoughts on this pressing issue in an interview with ITV.