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Alcohol causing 22 deaths per week in Scotland despite consumption at lowest level on record

Empty bottles - Image credit: Press Association

Alcohol causing 22 deaths per week in Scotland despite consumption at lowest level on record

Alcohol consumption in Scotland is at its lowest level on record, but 22 people per week are still dying from alcohol-related causes, new figures from Public Health Scotland show.

In Scotland 9.9 litres of pure alcohol, the equivalent to 19.1 units a week, were sold per adult in 2019, according to the annual Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy (MESAS) report on alcohol price, consumption and alcohol-related harm.

This was the same level of alcohol consumption as in 2018.

Even higher levels of population alcohol consumption are estimated when sales are worked out per adult drinker rather than based on all adults, where is becomes 11.9 litres per person rather than 9.9 litres, with 16 per cent of adults reporting being non-drinkers in 2018.

Almost a quarter of adults in Scotland, 24 per cent, drank more than the maximum recommended number of units per week in 2018, according to self-reported consumption.

Alcohol consumption remains significantly higher than in England and Wales, a difference of nine per cent in 2019, which was nevertheless one of the smallest gaps there has been between Scotland and England and Wales.

This was despite the average price of alcohol sold in off licences, corner shops and supermarkets, which account for nearly three-quarters of sales, sitting at 62p per unit in Scotland compared to 57p per unit in England.

In a pub the average price of a pint was also higher at £1.96 in Scotland and £1.92 in England.

In 2018, 1,136 people died in Scotland due to a cause wholly attributable to alcohol, an average of 22 people per week.

Inequalities in alcohol-related deaths are stark, with rates of alcohol-specific death more than 4.5 times higher and alcohol-related hospital stays around seven times higher in the 10 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland than in the 10 per cent least deprived areas.

Alcohol-related deaths in Scotland for both men and women have been rising in recent years, after a period from 2003 to 2012 where they had been going down.

Men are particularly affected, with rates of alcohol-specific death and alcohol-related hospital stays more than twice as high for men as women and highest in the 55–64 age group, according to the most recent data.

Alcohol-related deaths are also consistently higher in Scotland than in England and Wales and in 2018 they were nearly twice as high for men and 87 per cent higher for women.

Commenting on the data, Lucie Giles, public health intelligence principal at Public Health Scotland, said: “Population level alcohol consumption in Scotland has remained at the level the MESAS programme reported last year.

“Based on alcohol sales, average alcohol consumption in 2019 is estimated at 9.9 litres of pure alcohol per adult in Scotland.

“This is the lowest we have seen in the available data and maintains the smallest difference between Scotland and England and Wales since the early 2000s. 

“Despite these encouraging trends, the most recent survey data shows that nearly a quarter of adults exceeded the revised low-risk weekly drinking guidelines, and that drinkers in the lowest income group are likely to consume more.

“An average of 22 people per week are still dying as a result of their alcohol consumption and again, this is not spread evenly throughout the population: those in the most deprived areas are more likely to be hospitalised or die because of an alcohol-related cause.

“Like all harm caused by alcohol, this is preventable.

“Public Health Scotland will continue to monitor and evaluate Scotland’s alcohol strategy, so we can continue to gauge progress and understand what works to reduce the harm alcohol causes”.

Responding to the figures, public health minister Joe FitzPatrick said: “I welcome this report which shows that the total volume of alcohol sales per adult in Scotland in 2019 remained at its lowest level since 1994 – for the second year running. 

“Last year’s report was the first year impacted by the introduction of minimum unit pricing and showed a step change in total alcohol sales with a reduction of three per cent. 

“This reduction equates to 0.4 litres of pure alcohol per adult – a reduction of 0.6 units of alcohol per adult per week.

“This is very positive and builds on the findings of the report published last week which found that minimum unit pricing was associated with a net reduction of between four and five per cent in off-trade alcohol sales per adult in its first year.

“We know that it will take longer for the impact of reduced consumption to feed through into health-related statistics, but I am more convinced than ever that MUP is one of the main drivers in reducing alcohol harms.”

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said the report gave “real cause for optimism”.

She said: “To see the evidence that alcohol consumption has remained at the same level we saw in the 2019 monitoring report is encouraging.

“The results of all the evaluation studies published so far give us real cause for optimism that minimum unit pricing is having the intended effect and that it will improve – and save – many people’s lives. 

“It is particularly affecting consumption of the high strength, low costs products which are favoured by heavier drinkers.

“However, we still have a long way to go to tackle the high levels of drinking we are still seeing – Scotland continues to suffer significant alcohol-related harm, with almost double the alcohol-specific deaths in Scotland when compared to England and Wales.

“The Scottish Government need to continue to prioritise work on preventing the harm caused by alcohol by building on the success of minimum pricing and taking action to control availability and restrict marketing.”

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