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Scots drank less during pandemic but harms increased for hazardous drinkers, study finds

Scots drank less during pandemic but harms increased for hazardous drinkers, study finds

The proportion of people dying due to hazardous alcohol consumption rose over the course of the pandemic despite a decrease in the amount of alcohol being consumed across the population as a whole, analysis from Public Health Scotland has confirmed.

In a report released today, Public Health Scotland noted that off-sales were up by 13 per cent between 2019 and 2020 and by 15 per cent between January and May 2021 compared with the average for the same period over the previous three years.

However, as bars and restaurants were closed for extended periods due to various coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions, total alcohol sales were 9 per cent lower in 2020 than the 2017–19 average and 16 per cent lower in the first five months of 2021 than the three-year average for that specific period.

Despite this, the report found that deaths from causes wholly attributable to alcohol increased from the start of the pandemic, driven primarily by a rise in alcohol-specific death rates among males and those aged 45 to 64 – the two groups that were most at risk from alcohol-related harms in the years prior to the pandemic.

The increase in alcohol-specific deaths went hand in hand with a decrease in hospital stays directly related to alcohol consumption for the population groups affected.

Lucie Giles, public health intelligence principal at Public Health Scotland and one of the report’s authors, said the findings suggest that drinking at hazardous and harmful levels has increased for certain groups and that those groups are likely to have received fewer medical interventions and experienced higher rates of mortality.

“The data show that the number of people accessing hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis fell during the pandemic, particularly at times when restrictions were at their most stringent,” she said.

“We saw the greatest reductions amongst men and those aged 45 years and over and it was in these same groups that we saw increases in deaths caused by alcohol.

“This was despite average alcohol consumption for the population falling, a change driven by a reduction in sales of alcohol through pubs and clubs.

The results chime with a study released by the universities of Glasgow and Sheffield earlier this month which found that there had been an increase in the proportion of people drinking alone in Scotland during the pandemic.

Similarly, figures released by the National Records of Scotland last year showed there had been a 17 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths in 2020, something that public health minister Maree Todd at the time put down to the lockdown effect.

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said the Public Health Scotland report is positive in that it shows there was less alcohol consumed overall in Scotland over the past two years, but added that that “needs to seen in the context of the devastating rise in deaths caused by alcohol during the same period”.

“Drinking habits appear to have become polarised; some have cut down, while others – particularly heavier drinkers – have increased their drinking,” she said.

“In addition, it has been challenging for people to access the support they need, with reports of services being reduced or operating online for periods of time.

“Helping people to reduce how much they drink must remain a priority as part of Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19. This can be achieved both through the provision of accessible and recovery-oriented support for those with alcohol problems, combined with preventative approaches, such as increasing the minimum unit price to 65p per unit, introducing restrictions on alcohol marketing, and reducing the ready availability of alcohol.”

Giles added that while the Public Health Scotland study showed a decrease in overall alcohol consumption, Scots are still generally drinking to excess.

“Despite the reduction in sales overall the data indicate that population level consumption of alcohol was still above recommended levels,” she said.

“Between March 2020 and May 2021, 17 units (171 ml) of pure alcohol have been sold per adult each week on average, 16 (162 ml) of which have been from off-trade premises.

“This represents enough alcohol to put every adult in Scotland over the mhief Medical officer’s low-risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units.”

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