Communities in Scotland have long been affected by a heavy alcohol burden. This is much to do with ingrained societal drivers and a pervasive alcohol norm in Scottish society. The introduction of the new minimum unit pricing (MUP) law led to a decline in alcohol consumption. However, the coronavirus pandemic is fueling heavy alcohol use and related problems, perpetuating the deeply ingrained alcohol norm. Complementing MUP with other alcohol policy solutions is necessary to institute a comprehensive approach to address the underlying alcohol norm in the country for long lasting change.
According to 2018 data recently released, alcohol related deaths are on the rise again in Scotland. In 2018, 1,136 Scots died from alcohol-specific illnesses, 10% more than in 2012 which was a 20 year low for alcohol-related mortality.
When it comes to gendered differences, compared to people in England, Scottish men are twice as likely to die due to alcohol problems and Scottish women are 87% more likely to die from alcohol-related causes.
While some blame the alcohol problem in the country on the weather, others state it is to do with the ingrained societal drivers and the alcohol norm. Eric Carlin, the director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) highlights the so called Glasgow effect. The concept relates to the role of socioeconomic factors such as housing, schooling, employment and the consequences of deindustrialization. These factors, in addition to alcohol harm, contribute to Glaswegians’ below-average life expectancy.
The inequality in alcohol deaths in Scotland is clear. According to figures for 2018, alcohol-specific deaths were almost five times higher in the 10% most deprived areas in the country, compared to its 10% most affluent areas.
Policies to tackle the alcohol burden in Scotland
After years of legal battles with the alcohol industry, Scotland was able to pass their landmark minimum unit price (MUP) law. The law sets a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol. The MUP policy effectively takes care of the highly available cheap alcohol which is often consumed by heavy alcohol users.
After a year of MUP, the policy showed positive results. The volume of pure alcohol sold per person had fallen by almost 4%, from 10.3 liters to 9.9 liters. Sales of cheap cider which had a price increase of 13% fell by five times.
Need for more action
In 2019 however, there was no discernible fall in alcohol sales. Now as Scots are coming out of COVID-19 lockdown and isolation there is a threat that the alcohol burden can grow again.
Calls to addiction services in Scotland have sky-rocketed. For example, at the Glasgow Council on Alcohol calls from people seeking help increased by a fifth during lockdown. Self-referrals alone increased by 18%, according to NBC News.
A recent poll, which was conducted during the height of COVID-19 pandemic, showed that frequent alcohol users who consume alcohol at least four times a week were consuming even more during lockdown.
The COVID-19 fallout concerning alcohol harm shows that complementing MUP with other alcohol policy solutions is necessary to institute a comprehensive approach to address the underlying alcohol norm in Scotland for long lasting change, including better screening, brief intervention and treatment service coverage, better alcohol marketing regulation, and better alcohol availability rules.