Kevan Christie: Scotland must change its attitude to alcohol

The health effects of drinking too much alcohol can be seen across all social classes, though poorer areas suffer more. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The health effects of drinking too much alcohol can be seen across all social classes, though poorer areas suffer more. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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With the Supreme Court ruling on minimum unit pricing for alcohol in Scotland due on Wednesday morning and the festive period just around the corner, there’s never been a better time to launch this five-part series in which we aim to shine a light on the nation’s drinking habits.

Every day this week on these pages The Scotsman will tackle a different aspect of our often difficult relationship with the “demon drink”.

From hipster spirits to rocket fuel cider, we’ll look at the scale of the problem in terms of health, crime, the impact on children and families, treatments and potential solutions to our all too often excessive drinking habits. We’ll explore the current safe drinking guidelines and look closely at the role played by clever advertising and marketing in getting us to part with our hard-earned cash for their products.

You’ll hear from addiction experts, senior government ministers, frontline NHS and emergency services staff and read first person pieces from people across the social spectrum on their relationship with alcohol. We’ll look at how we compare to other countries in terms of alcohol consumed and how our drinking culture compares.

The aim of this series is to provide a balanced snapshot of where we are at this particular moment in time with alcohol, a substance that has played an all-pervading part in most of our lives, whether you’re a weekend binge merchant or a long-standing teetotaller.

As part of this we will look at the arguments for minimum unit pricing which has so far been blocked by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and its partners in the drinks industry, who have been at the forefront of a sustained legal challenge for the best part of five years now.

MSPs approved plans for a minimum price per unit of alcohol in 2012, but the proposal has been tied up in court challenges amid claims it breaches European law. The SWA has taken the fight to the UK’s highest court, which heard an appeal in July.

The Supreme Court decision in two days’ time will finally draw a line under the pricing issue – but the inherent problems won’t disappear with that judgement.

A result in favour of minimum unit pricing would, for example, see a three-litre bottle of white cider at 7.5 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) containing a total of 22.5 units rise from its current price of around £3.99 to £11.25, putting it financially out of reach for its target market: problem drinkers in our most deprived areas.

At present the health statistics around the nation’s use of alcohol make for grim reading. Scotland continues to have the highest level of alcohol consumption and harm in the UK. One million people in Scotland drink above the recommended guidelines, and 24 die because of alcohol every single week – twice the rate of the 1980s.

One in four people are drinking at hazardous or harmful levels, defined as more than 14 units a week. Men drink an average of 16.9 units. Women consume an average of 8.8 units a week, which is within the safe limits but masks the true extent of female drinking habits.

Last year, enough alcohol was sold in Scotland for each drinker to have the equivalent of 48 bottles of vodka, or 124 bottles of wine.

The 45-59 age group have suffered the most in terms of alcohol-related deaths in almost every year since 1979. This is a generation who learned to drink in their teens and continued down the same well-worn path into early middle age when the body starts to feel the physical toll from years of abuse.

A new generation – the so-called millennials – appear to be shunning this behaviour as they embrace a clean-living, healthy lifestyle. They see getting drunk as something the older generation do. However, it may take years for the country as a whole to reap the benefit of this perceived new attitude.

Shockingly, there are hundreds of heavy drinkers in Glasgow and Edinburgh dying at an average age of 51 – around 25 years younger than typical life expectancy in Scotland.

Significant consumption of cheap alcohol is to blame, with vodka and white cider being the tipples of choice for many.

Poverty has a huge part to play in this, with an alarming link between socio-economic status and the harm caused by drinking excessively. A spiral of despair linked to unemployment, obesity, crime and addictions to drugs and alcohol paint a depressing picture of life in our poorest areas – no wonder drink is often used as a form of anaesthetic to make it through the day.

Compared with light drinkers in advantaged areas, excessive drinkers are seven times at risk of an increase in alcohol harm.

But excessive drinkers in deprived areas were 11 times at risk of an increase in harm, according to a University of Glasgow study published in The Lancet medical journal earlier this year.

Conversely, on average female drinkers in the least deprived areas have higher weekly consumption levels at 9.7 units than their counterparts in the most deprived areas, who drink 7.5 units.

This underlines the image of the after-work “Prosecco crowd” who joke as the shared bottle in the wine bar after work swiftly turns into two or three bottles.

Recent figures from the Scottish Health Survey show that among those who drink above the recommended maximum of 14 units per week, people in the most deprived areas tend to drink more than those in the least deprived areas.

Alcohol-related patients stay sick for longer, placing a huge burden on our struggling NHS services. Those with alcohol-related liver disease are getting younger, with some patients only in their early twenties.

Liver disease is one of the few major causes of premature mortality that is increasing, and deaths from liver disease have reached record levels. Mortality rates from alcoholic liver disease (ALD) in Scotland have tripled since 1981, and in 2016, ALD accounted for 58 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths. Hospital admissions for this illness have more than quadrupled since 1981-82. Treatment for alcohol-related conditions in Scotland costs more than £1 million a day.

From cradle to the grave, alcohol is omnipresent at every facet of life in this country: Our first illicit sips at the school dance, notable birthdays, weddings, funerals, your team won, your team lost – and don’t forget the “I’ve had a hard day at work and deserve a drink” mentality.

It must be stressed that this week’s series does not represent any kind of attempt at a new Puritanism – this paper has a thriving Food & Drink section and we champion the best that Scotland has to offer in terms of local start-ups with the burgeoning gin and craft beer sectors being recent success stories. We acknowledge that most people drink normally and it is not a problem for them – and 16 per cent of Scots say they are non-drinkers.

Rather, we aim to explore ways in which overall the national psyche can be reset, as a new generation grows up with a more sensible and discerning approach to enjoying alcohol.

If this encourages debate around the minimum unit pricing announcement then that can only be a good thing.

Let’s take a good hard look at ourselves and explore ways to enjoy a more grown-up relationship with alcohol.