Fire chief tells public to drink less after spate of deadly blazes

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THE head of Scotland's largest fire service has hit out at the country's alcohol culture, after a spate of house fires led to an "unprecedented level of tragedy and misery" over the festive period.

Brian Sweeney, chief officer of Strathclyde Fire & Rescue, said Scottish society had to accept that alcohol misuse, not economic troubles, were the "greatest crisis" facing the country.

He said it was the "key reason" behind the series of fires over the Christmas and Hogmanay period, the worst for a decade. The service dealt with nearly 250 house fires between 27 December and 6 January, which left five people dead and 68 injured.

However, a leading licensed trade body said that an increase in house fires was "one of the consequences" of the fact Scotland had become a "nation of take-home drinkers" after smoking was banned in pubs.

While investigations are ongoing into those incidents which claimed lives, it is understood alcohol was a factor in at least one, when a 53-year-old woman died in a fire in a flat in Johnstone on New Year's Day.

Describing the period as "memorable for all the wrong reasons," Mr Sweeney pointed out that if the same number of deaths and injuries had occurred as a result of a "single industrial explosion", the reaction of society would have been very different. He said: "Scotland needs to redefine its relationship with alcohol. The government will this year introduce the Alcohol (Scotland) Bill, looking at the regulation, pricing, licensing and availability of alcohol. But the individual needs to take responsibility.

"All of us in Scotland are simply drinking too much, and when we're under the influence of alcohol, our ability to safely go about our business during the seasonal period is diminished."

He added that moves to ban smoking in public had made the habit "almost socially unacceptable" and advocated that steps be taken to alter the way ordinary Scots drink.

However, Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, warned that continuing low prices in supermarkets encouraged people to drink at home.

He said: "Scotland is a nation of take-home drinkers who don't consume alcohol in pubs any more, and this is one of the consequences of it. Even at the time of the introduction of the ban on smoking in public places, we warned that it would lead to an increase in fires in the home. The introduction of minimum pricing would have helped, but, sadly, it has not happened."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "Although the number of fire-related deaths fell last year, sadly, as we have seen over the festive period, too many families are still suffering the tragedy of a loved one being lost through fire.

"More widely, there is no doubt that Scotland needs to change its damaging relationship with alcohol. The effects are wide-ranging and it can't go on.

"That is why we are taking tough action through the Alcohol Bill to address Scotland's drinking culture by ending irresponsible drinks promotions and tightening up the rules surrounding the sale of alcohol in off-licenses."