Comment: It's time to call time on our toxic relationship with alcohol
We all know Scotland has a deeply troubling relationship with alcohol, so it was vaguely cheering to read last week that, rather than collectively turning to the bottle as a means of dealing with the pandemic, as a population we actually probably drank a little bit less after the onset of Covid-19.
A report from Public Health Scotland showed that total alcohol sales fell by nine per cent in 2020 compared with the previous three years while in the first five months of 2021 they were 16 per cent lower.
Don’t get too excited, though. The stats were – obviously – a reflection of bars and restaurants being closed amid various lockdowns and while it seems that most of us didn’t replace boozy nights out with boozy nights in, for some people who were already drinking in hazardous and harmful ways the restrictions proved fatal.
With the pandemic cutting off all but frontline Covid-related services in one fell swoop, rates of alcohol-related hospital stays for men, those aged 45 and over and those living in the most deprived parts of the country – those who were most often hospitalised pre-pandemic, in other words – fell dramatically when restrictions were imposed. People dying alcohol-specific deaths in those groups in particular have risen dramatically as a result.
Both Public Health Scotland and Alcohol Focus Scotland were clear about the implications of the report. “Tackling alcohol consumption and harms, particularly among high-risk groups, should be a critical objective of any Covid-19 recovery plans,” said Lucie Giles, public health intelligence principal at the former. “Helping people to reduce how much they drink must remain a priority as part of Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19,” noted Alison Douglas, chief executive of the latter.
How likely is that to happen? When National Records of Scotland figures published last year showed there had been a massive 17 per cent rise in alcohol-related deaths in 2020 the government response to the news was muted.
There had been an outcry not long before when it was revealed there had been a spike in drug deaths during the pandemic and extra money for services was found, but the record number of alcohol-related deaths was met almost with resignation.
New guidance on licensing was issued in December and there have been vague noises about possibly, at some point, considering calls to urgently raise the minimum unit price from 50p to 65p, but there has been little else besides.
Along with marketing, both licensing and pricing are seen as crucial in helping prevent people from developing an addiction to alcohol, but for those already in addiction they will have absolutely zero effect.
Audit Scotland last week issued a damning report on the state of the NHS, noting that staff are stretched to breaking point while waiting lists continue to soar. Against that backdrop, when so many things must be prioritised, services for some of the very hardest to reach people in some of the very hardest to reach areas have got to be revolutionised, and with haste.
Even if that were to happen – and it really is a massive if - it is unlikely to go far enough.
When I wrote about the alcohol death figures last year, Jardine Simpson, chief executive of the Scottish Recovery Consortium, told me that Scotland’s damaging relationship with alcohol would not change until we stopped viewing it as a “beneficial social lubricant” and started seeing it as the toxic substance it is.
“If you want to change the Scottish attitude towards alcohol you have to change the narrative around what it is and what harms people experience if they develop a dependency to it,” he said.
“We need to educate but also empower people to understand alcohol in a different way.”
Surely now is the time to start doing that. Because if not now, when?
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