Readers will be all too aware of the impact that alcohol misuse has in Scotland, of its grievous effect on families and communities and of the need to challenge this socially destructive addiction. My father died as a result of his alcoholism, and I remember years when I did not see him sober from month to month, so the issue has a personal resonance.
The alcohol consumption rate in Scotland is among the highest in Europe. Scottish Government figures suggest that half of men and a third of women regularly drink at levels that are above the recommended weekly limits. With misuse comes a plethora of health-related issues, which range from short-term alcoholic poisoning to long-term kidney and liver failure. Mental health issues may be severe; depression and dependency may be long lasting.
Although the personal side-effects are well known, the problems that alcohol misuse causes go deeper and have an impact on communities, the National Health Service, criminal justice and wider society. The causes of high consumption rates include the availability of cheap, strong alcohol, coupled with special offers in shops. This has normalised consumption and allowed it to become an everyday necessity for many. Such normalisation, however, touches individuals, families, communities and society.
We know for example that alcohol misuse impacts on children living with parents with a drink problem; that heavy drinking is a common factor in family break-up; and that the impact of our excessive consumption of alcohol is estimated to cost Scots £3.6 billion each year—that is £900 for every adult in Scotland.
Given that Scots drink some 25 percent more than our English and Welsh neighbours, it is clear that, as a nation, our relationship with alcohol is a deeply unhealthy one. The reasons for this are complex, deep rooted and difficult to tackle – with culture, industrial decline and even weather playing a factor.
The Scottish Government’s Alcohol Framework contains more than 40 measures to reduce alcohol-related harm and has had a positive impact so far. However, while 22 people a week still die because of alcohol, it is obvious that we must do more. That is why we are working on the next phase of our alcohol strategy which will be ready in 2016.
Education and changing behaviour is obviously key to success in the battle to reduce alcohol harm and a recent report (Four Nations: How Evidence-based are Alcohol Policies and Programmes Across the UK?) commends the Scottish Government for leading the way in prioritising the delivery of Alcohol Brief Interventions – and consistently exceeding its targets for these – and in lowering the drink-drive limit, among other measures.
The low price of alcohol is undoubtedly the key factor affecting the rate of consumption. Medical professionals across the world have recognised the clear link between affordability and levels of misuse and a number of nations have now taken legislative action to redress the balance.
Readers will know that the Scottish Government has made the introduction of alcohol minimum unit pricing a firm commitment to tackle the scourge of low cost, high strength alcohol which is at the root of so much pain. Sadly, the introduction of this measure has been stalled by a legal challenge in the European Courts. Meanwhile, the problems continue.
Responding to the news that alcohol-related deaths in Scotland rose by 5 per cent to 1,152, Dr Peter Bennie, chair of British Medical Association Scotland, said:
“It is a continuing frustration that legislation to introduce minimum unit pricing of alcohol has been delayed due to the legal challenge by the Scotch Whisky Association. We once again call on it to drop this appeal and allow the introduction of this innovative and world-leading public health policy.”
Whilst progress will be slow and difficult, I am confident that this measure will be introduced and – along with a broad range of other initiatives – we can finally confront and mend Scotland’s relationship with the bottle.