Policy overhaul vital to protect most vulnerable, writes Alison Douglas
As the First Minister told participants at the recent Global Alcohol Policy Conference (GAPC) in Edinburgh, Scotland certainly isn’t unique in having a problem with alcohol. Unfortunately we are unusual in the severity and extent of that problem.
We are awash with alcohol, drinking around a fifth more than our English and Welsh neighbours, and we all know someone whose health and family life has been damaged as a result.
At the conference, experts from around the world were impressed by Scotland’s robust response to this wave of alcohol harm. They commended our commitment to evidence-based policies that help reduce consumption, like pricing, rather than weak measures which try to change individual behaviour, like education.
Asking people to “drink responsibly” simply doesn’t work when we are faced with a flood of alcohol that is cheap, readily available and endlessly promoted.
Our international colleagues were particularly impressed by the Scottish Government’s commitment to minimum unit pricing. More than 70 per cent of alcohol in Scotland is now bought relatively cheaply from supermarkets and shops and drunk at home. The cheapest, strongest drinks like white ciders and own brand vodkas are most often consumed by people who are drinking harmfully. Once a 50p minimum unit price is introduced, these drinks will be more expensive and the benefits will be fewer people in hospital, more families staying together and less anti-social behaviour and crime.
Some good progress has been made in the six years since Scotland’s alcohol strategy was published.
Scotland has banned irresponsible off-sales promotions which encouraged people to bulk buy alcohol; lowered the drink-drive limit to make our roads safer; and health professionals have delivered more than 300,000 brief interventions to at-risk drinkers. These are all positive steps and they are having some impact, with a 9 per cent fall in consumption since 2009, and alcohol-related deaths decreasing by more than a third since they peaked in 2003.
Despite these encouraging signs, alcohol-related deaths have risen again in each of the past two years, with 1,152 Scots dying because of alcohol last year, and the downward trend in sales has now stalled. One of the reasons for this is that alcohol has become more affordable following the recession. This highlights the importance of price in influencing how much we drink.
It’s clear that addressing low-cost alcohol is essential, but what else should we be doing?
Steps must be taken to restrict alcohol marketing, particularly to protect children being targeted as the next generation of drinkers. Evidence has been growing about the effect of alcohol ads on children, making them more likely to start drinking earlier and greater quantities. We also know that children see more adverts than ever. Our children have the right to play, learn and socialise in places free from commercial pressure to drink alcohol but weak regulatory systems are failing to protect them. Broadcast advertising is reserved to the UK government, and we need to put pressure on Westminster to tackle this, but there are other steps we can take here in Scotland.
It should not be acceptable that if you take your 12-year-old to see a film, like Spectre (certificate 12A), they are likely to see alcohol adverts. One simple action would be to only allow cinema adverts before certificate 18 films where the entire audience should be over 18. Scotland could also phase out alcohol sponsorship in sport. It’s disappointing that the Scottish Football Association recently signed a deal with Tennent’s. Our national sports bodies should be inspiring people to lead healthy and positive lifestyles, not promoting a product with such high health and societal costs.
Similarly, we should be able to ensure the places we live in encourage good health rather than being saturated by alcohol. For example, decisions by our local licensing boards shape our high streets and communities yet few of us have a say in whether an alcohol licence should be granted for another supermarket or a pub allowed to stay open longer. The objectives of Scotland’s licensing law include protecting and improving public health, and preventing crime and disorder. To meet these objectives, licensing boards must become more accessible, accountable and responsive to the communities they serve. As the new head of Alcohol Focus Scotland I look forward to working with all who want to get the right policies in place to prevent alcohol damaging individuals, families, communities and our economy. I’m optimistic we can turn the tide towards a healthier, safer Scotland for everyone.
• Alison Douglas is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland