Warnings over 'new normal' lockdown drinking at home

Health experts marking the 2nd anniversary of minimum unit pricing are calling on the Scottish Government to address the 'new normal' post Covid-19 amid concerns one million people in Scotland are drinking more than the recommended limits during lockdown.

There are concerns about the growth in alcohol sales during lockdown

The charity Alcohol Focus Scotland urges Ministers to keep a long-term view to managing the country’s problematic relationship with alcohol.

Despite positive signs of Scots curbing their drinking in the twelve months following the introduction of minimum unit pricing, the current rise in alcohol sales during lockdown is concerning for public health experts.

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Two years ago today the medical professions celebrated the introduction of minimum unit pricing (MUP) for all alcohol sold in Scotland, six years on from the legislation being passed in the Scottish Parliament after a protracted five-year battle against the plans led by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

In 2017 the UK supreme court backed the Scottish government’s plans to introduce a minimum price for all alcoholic drinks, in a decisive victory for Nicola Sturgeon.

This meant that from 1st May 2018 all alcohol sold in Scotland was subject to a 50p per unit floor price.

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Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “The initial results from the evaluation of minimum unit pricing are hugely encouraging as studies have found a significant decrease in consumption in the first year compared to England and Wales. As consumption drops the expectation is that the harms to health and society will also decrease, meaning less health damage and fewer lives lost.

“However, the recent reports of growing alcohol sales and our own research showing that one million of us in Scotland are drinking more under lockdown, highlight the ongoing issue we still have with alcohol in this country. It remains to be seen what impact social distancing will have and what new challenges it will throw up. But it is unlikely that Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol will be changed for the better.”

Ms Douglas said this could have a significant impact not just on the health and well-being of drinkers but also on their children and families.

She called on the Scottish Government to ensure people have access to vital services and urged them to keep focused on longer preventative policies like minimum unit pricing.

The annual Monitoring and Evaluation of Scotland’s Alcohol Strategy (MESAS) report in 2019 showed the biggest drop in consumption in 25 years.

Further figures in 2020 from the official evaluation study looking at sales-based consumption in the first year of MUP show that Scotland bought 3.6% less alcohol from off-sales than in the previous year.

While sales data from England and Wales – used as a control measure - show a 3.2% increase.

Dr Eric Carlin, Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: “People should be in no doubt about the ferocity and determination of global alcohol producers in seeking to overturn MUP and other policies that affect their profits. The scientific and clinical evidence supporting Minimum Pricing assembled by SHAAP and others was rigorously examined through the legal challenges which began in 2012, when the legislation was passed without opposition in the Scottish Parliament, and 2018 when it was finally implemented.Throughout this period, the opponents to MUP shamed the reputation of their industry by prioritising profits over people’s lives.

“As we move to a post-COVID 19 ‘new normality’,we will need to build on progress made prior to the pandemic and to regain the momentum with policies, including MUP that reduce alcohol-related harms, which disproportionately affect the poorest communities.”

Latest figures from Edinburgh City Council show that residents in the Capital are recycling twice as much glass than in normal circumstances after glass recycling was reinstated this week.

Green councillor Gavin Corbett said: “I know some residents who are relieved that glass collections have returned, given their accumulation of beer and wine bottles over the last few weeks.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Minimum unit pricing is a landmark and world-leading policy that promises to make a significant positive difference to public health in Scotland.”

“One of the several reports that has been published so far shows a 3.6 per cent decrease in off-trade sales of pure alcohol per adult in Scotland in the 12 months following the introduction of minimum unit pricing.

“This is an early encouraging start, but it will take longer for the impact of reduced consumption to feed through to a reduction in alcohol-related harm, but we believe the policy will make a significant difference when it comes to reducing deaths and hospital admissions. A comprehensive independent evaluation of the impact of minimum unit pricing is being undertaken by Public Health Scotland. This covers the five year period since the introduction of this policy, and we are only two years into this evaluation. The final evaluation report will be produced in 2023.”

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