Alcohol-related deaths reach 'devastating' 12-year high in Scotland as Covid-19 threatens to 'undermine' progress

The number of deaths in Scotland attributed to alcohol have risen to the highest level in 12 years as experts warned the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to “undermine” recent progress.

There were 1,190 alcohol-specific deaths in 2020 – a “devastating” increase of 17 per cent on the previous year.

And the alarming figures have sparked calls for minimum unit pricing (MUP) to be increased to be hiked higher than 50 pence per unit, just three years after the policy was first introduced.

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Last year’s number of alcohol-specific deaths is the highest yearly total since 2008 and represents a rate of 21.5 per 100,000 people.

Picture: John Devlin

The areas most affected were Glasgow City and Inverclyde.

The rate of alcohol deaths in the more deprived areas was more than four times that of the least deprived areas last year.

There were also more than twice as many deaths in men (826) than in women (364).

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, described the figures as “devastating”.

Source: National Records of Scotland.

She said: “Last year we saw a positive reduction in the number of deaths caused by alcohol.

"This sudden increase of 17 per cent is devastating to see and a tragedy for everyone affected. It is a stark reminder that we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball where alcohol harm is concerned.

“Scotland has made good progress in addressing the problems we have with alcohol by introducing policies like minimum unit pricing, which is showing promising results.

"Yet the impact of the pandemic threatens to undermine this progress. Many people, particularly heavier drinkers, have reported that they have increased their drinking during the last 18 months.

"The effects are felt most by those living in our poorest communities, who are eight times more likely to die due to alcohol.”

Public health minister Maree Todd said lockdown had led to people who were drinking heavily consuming even more alcohol.

“Although alcohol consumption in Scotland dropped in 2020, evidence from various surveys has shown those who were drinking heavily before the pandemic were more likely to increase their drinking during lockdown, thereby increasing their risk of harm,” she said.

Opposition parties demanded urgent action from the Scottish Government.

Scottish Greens health spokesperson Gillian Mackay said: “We need to recognise the role that poverty and mental health plays in this, providing earlier treatment and support where it is needed.

"There also still needs to be action on the marketing and promotion of alcohol and a reassessment of the minimum unit price.”

Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie said the country’s “problematic and deadly” relationship with alcohol needed to change.

“When [health secretary] Humza Yousaf finally finds time to develop an NHS recovery plan, restarting treatment services must be a top priority and the government must implement measures beyond minimum unit pricing, including restrictions on marketing and restoring the cuts made to alcohol treatment budgets, to address Scotland’s problematic and deadly relationship with alcohol,” she said.

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Scottish Conservative shadow health secretary Annie Wells said alcohol deaths were following the “same horrific trend” as drug deaths.

“Scotland has a real problem with treating addiction that has grown far worse since the SNP came to power,” she said.

“It would be a grievous mistake to assume this increase is down to the pandemic alone.”

Liberal Democrats’ Alex Cole-Hamilton said the figures underlined issues of inequality and deprivation.

“People’s life chances shouldn’t be dictated by where they come from,” he said.

"There should be opportunity and support in every corner of Scotland. But these statistics starkly show that’s not the case.”

Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), based at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, has called for MUP to be increased from 50p to 65p.

Director Elinor Jayne said: “The number of people in Scotland who died directly as a result of alcohol should act as a reminder to all that it’s not only drugs that cause immense harm and suffering, but alcohol too. Everyone left behind by those who have died as a result of alcohol will testify to that.

“While Scotland led the way by introducing minimum unit pricing for alcohol in 2018, there’s still a long way to go to turn these figures round and, most importantly, reduce the damage caused by alcohol to people’s lives and health.”

Alison Douglas, from Alcohol Focus Scotland, also called for an increase to MUP.

“If we are to prevent more people losing their lives to alcohol and to reduce health inequalities, we need to redouble our efforts by reducing the availability of alcohol, restricting its marketing and by uprating minimum unit price,” she said.

"Importantly, we also need to make sure that support is available to those who need it now.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said the deaths in Scotland followed a similar pattern to the rest of the UK.

“We cannot afford to continue ignoring the damage that alcohol is inflicting on communities around the UK,” he said.

"Though the Scottish Government has led the way with innovative alcohol harm prevention policies, like minimum unit pricing, there is still more to do to tackle alcohol harm including ensuring access to alcohol treatment for all who need it.

"This must be backed up by urgent action from the UK Government in the form of effective alcohol taxes and alcohol advertising restrictions on TV and online to protect children. Lives depend on it.”

Ms Todd said the Scottish Government had been working with other organisations to return services to pre-pandemic levels as quickly as possible.

“This includes additional funding to extend outreach initiatives which identify people at risk, address their immediate health concerns, and get them the support they need,” she said.

We Are With You provides free confidential support, 9am-9pm, on 0800 915 4624. Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs supports anyone concerned about someone else’s alcohol or drug use, on 08080 101011.

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