'˜Clear link' between Scots' heavy drinking and low incomes

There is a clear link between Scots who drink heavily and low personal income, writes Stephen Hinchliffe of ScotCen

Latest figures demonstrate a clear association between heavy drinking and low income. Picture: Rob McDougall/TSPL

The recent rejection by the courts of a challenge led by the Scotch Whisky Association may open the way for the introduction of minimum unit pricing, one of the Scottish Government’s flagship health policies.

It has been suggested minimum pricing will have a greater impact on those with lower incomes, who are in turn more likely to drink cheap alcohol.

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We can assess this using data from the Scottish Health Survey. At first glance, some of this evidence may challenge common preconceptions, as wealthier Scots are more likely to consume above the recommended maximum level of 14 units a week than their less well-off counterparts.

But the full story is more complex.

Published figures for 2015 show male drinkers in low income households consumed an average of 23 units a week - compared with 17 units for men in the highest income households.

When we look only at those drinking above the maximum recommended levels, we find men with the lowest incomes drank around 55 units a week, while those on the highest incomes drank about 28 units a week.

In other words, we see a smaller proportion of men with low incomes than high incomes drinking above recommended levels - but those who are above the levels drink considerably more.

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While women generally consumed less alcohol than men, the same patterns were evident, with more women in the highest income group exceeding the guidelines, but very high consumption being more evident in the low income group.

Additional information from the Scottish Health Survey provided by ScotCen and the Scottish Government tells us a lot more about the differences in alcohol consumption across the income groups.

In particular, it helps provide initial evidence on whether drinkers in the lowest income groups are drinking the types of drink most likely to be affected by minimum unit pricing, such as strong beer or cider, spirits and fortified wine.

Male drinkers on low incomes did consume more of these type of drinks than those on higher incomes. They were more likely to drink strong beer or cider (an average of 2.2 units per week for those on low incomes and 0.3 units for those on high incomes), fortified wine, such as sherry or Buckfast (0.5 units, compared with 0.1 units), and more spirits (4.5 units and 3.2 units).

Female drinkers in low income households similarly drank more strong beer or cider and more spirits than wealthier women, but at lower levels than men. However, despite this it is worth noting that for all groups, whether highest or lowest income, male or female, at least half the units consumed are from normal strength beer or cider or from wine.

These figures demonstrate a clear association between heavy drinking and low income, but also show that it is an issue not entirely confined to those on low incomes.

Those on low incomes are more likely to consume drinks whose cost may be affected by minimum unit pricing, but the majority of alcohol consumed by those with both high and low income is unlikely to be affected.

Stephen Hinchliffe is a senior researcher at ScotCen Social Research