THE affordability of alcohol is linked with persistently high death rates in Scotland, according to the NHS.
Three fifths of off-sales alcohol is sold below the Scottish Government’s proposed minimum price of 50 pence per unit (ppu), an NHS report entitled Monitoring and Evaluating Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy said.
Alcohol-related deaths and hospital discharge rates have declined in recent years, but death rates are still twice what they were in the 1980s and persistently higher than in England and Wales.
Women aged 25-44 years have not seen the same improvements in hospital discharge rates, particularly for alcoholic liver disease.
The recent economic downturn is likely to have contributed to the current decline in alcohol-related deaths in Scotland, as alcohol has become less affordable, the report said.
But Scottish sales remain 19% higher than in England and Wales, driven by the purchase of more off-sales spirits, particularly vodka.
Some 60% of alcohol sold in Scotland’s supermarkets, shops and off licenses was sold at below 50 ppu, the initial level proposed by the Scottish Government if the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 is implemented.
Clare Beeston, Principal Public Health Adviser at NHS Health Scotland, said: “It is pleasing that overall alcohol related deaths rates are falling. However, there were still over 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in 2012, with the equivalent of 20 people dying every week as a direct result of alcohol. This is still too many.
“Furthermore, in the 12 months to end of March 2012, nearly 26,000 people were hospitalised at least once due to alcohol. It is also worrying that the rates of hospitalisation for women aged 25-44 years have been increasing recently.”
Neil Craig, Public Health Adviser at NHS Health Scotland and one of the report’s authors, said: “This study finds more evidence of the well-known link between the affordability of alcohol and harmful drinking.
“The most deprived groups in Scotland experienced the biggest falls in deaths from alcohol and these falls began before the economic downturn. Our findings suggest this may be because these groups experienced falls in income that started before the recession in 2007.
“If so, as the economy picks up, recent reductions in sales and harms might not be sustained, especially if affordability starts to rise again after the recession.”
Health Secretary Alex Neil said: “As this report shows, affordability remains a core issue. That is why we are committed to introducing minimum unit pricing. We will move forward to implement this legislation as soon as we can to save lives and improve Scotland’s health.”
Labour public health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson said: “We believe that Scotland’s problems with alcohol need to be addressed with a fully rounded plan that includes elements such as tighter controls on advertising, limiting caffeine in pre-mixed drinks and improving powers for bottle tagging to help crackdown on those who buy alcohol for under-age drinkers.
“However the Scottish Government have pinned all their hopes on minimum unit pricing which is currently languishing in the courts. We can’t wait to see what happens so we are working on a Members bill that would tackle alcohol abuse head on and we would encourage all concerned parties to back our proposals.”