Kaitlin Dryburgh – 9th September 2022
Once again Scotland proves itself as a record breaker for all the wrong reasons, once again we have a higher rate of deaths caused by alcohol than anywhere else in the UK. Last year we saw another increase in the people who have died, 1,245 people in 2021 died due to alcohol-specific deaths. When compared to drug deaths in the same period they were very close in numbers, yet alcohol deaths received a lot less attention from ministers and the media. A quick search of “Scottish alcohol deaths” receives a lot less hits than that of its drug counterpart. It seems that the news has been majorly overshadowed, and although Scotland’s appalling drug deaths track record cannot be overlooked it is perhaps peculiar why there is so little attention paid to alcohol in contrast. Perhaps the reasoning for this is that alcohol is legal therefore less of a taboo, or maybe because Scotland has a notorious drinking culture, or that the drug death numbers is a big-ticket journalism story. However, what’s clear is the current path isn’t working, we have the most restrictive licencing laws in the UK yet here we are, and it’s only getting worse.
From the previous year there was a 5% rise in deaths, a total of 55 people. Looking at the statistics they paint a familiar picture to that of the current drug misuse situation in Scotland. That being that those who are more at risk are males around 60 years old and un-surprisingly they are from the most deprived areas in Scotland. If the increased deaths wasn’t enough the data from last year shows that the divide between the wealthy and the poor is widening, health inequalities are only getting worse and currently those in the most disadvantaged areas are 5.6 times more likely to die from and alcohol related illness than those living in more affluent areas. Once more just like in the case of drugs misuse the area in Scotland hit the hardest by these deaths are Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Lanarkshire. The similarities are uncanny, it’s almost as if substance abuse and addiction are linked to people’s situation, and the substance itself is irrelevant.
Drug and alcohol misuse/addiction are like two long time buddies who walk hand in hand with each-other, perhaps if we wanted to tackle them this would have to be as a pair. Which is the impression I was under, and many others were when the Scottish government decided to include both of them under the same policy strategy back in 2018. However, the situation seems to have taken a different turn as they are no longer covered by the same minister. With the pressure of drug deaths in Scotland a new role was established to tackle this “the minister for drugs policy”, which is a good thing of course, however, why was alcohol left behind? Meanwhile the minister in charge of alcohol also deals with food standards and abortions, and this falls under the jurisdiction of the minister for public health, women’s health and sport.
How are these two buddies supposed to be tackled together if we don’t even have the same person making decisions about them. Why do we not have an integrated and double pronged strategy, as there is no much point focusing all our energy and resources into one, when the other can sneak round the back and kick us in the behind. All chemical addictions should be approached the same and the decision to meaningfully focus on one shouldn’t be a PR exercise to showcase how much is really being done about the problem.
The question that keeps popping up in my head is why is it that Scotland has some of the most restrictive drinking laws, yet we still have a problem with alcohol, could it be that addiction will find away around a 10pm curfew? In 2020/21 Scotland had 35,124 hospital admissions from alcohol and this was regardless of happy hours being banned for as far as the eye can see. So we have a ban on multibuy price promotions of alcohol in off-licenced premises, we have minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol sold within Scotland and a large reduction to the drink-driving limit.
Yet are these really working? The first response would have to be a resounding no considering both Scotland’s alcohol related hospital admissions and deaths are starting to creep up. Studies of the effects that these laws had on the population tell different stories. A university of Sheffield report published this June studied the effects of minimum unit pricing (MUP) on Scotland and people who were abusing alcohol, it concluded that MUP did reduce the amount of alcohol we bought by a substantial amount. Perhaps at this point politicians high fived each other and went to the pub to celebrate, and maybe if that was the overall goal that would be a fair response but that’s as far as the good news goes. What the study also found was that there was nothing to suggest that MUP had a positive or negative effect on those with alcohol dependencies, the situation of alcohol dependants didn’t really change. Apart from one aspect, a majority of people partaking in the study started to spend less on other things in their life or found ways to raise more money in order to afford the now more expensive alcohol. Only a small minority reported that MUP actually stopped them from purchasing and consuming less alcohol. However, this isn’t really too much of a surprise as we know that a person who is addicted to a substance will find a way to feed that addiction, even if it means they can’t afford to eat for a couple of days. Although we shouldn’t be a country that makes alcohol cheaper than fruit and veg with in your face buy one get one free deals, pricing strategies are only a small piece to a comprehensive response to alcohol abuse.
However, that’s not the only report that found that the current drinking laws aren’t as influential as some might have hoped. The University of Strathclyde determined that after the drink driving limit was reduced there wasn’t a reduction in accidents or deaths caused by drink driving in Scotland. Although it perhaps made it more clear cut how much you can drink before hopping behind the wheel, and did dramatically reduce that amount of money pubs were taking in as people started to reach for the non-alcoholic version instead, did it have the effect that many people had wanted?
It comes down to that classic argument of addiction as a choice, it seems as if the current measures to tackle alcohol dependants is to treat it as a financial decision, that an addict can apply logic and will choose to heat their house over purchasing more alcohol. That perhaps the real reason we have a high percentage of people with alcohol problems is due to them having too high a disposable income. Of course this legislation isn’t just aimed at the people who are dependant on alcohol but the overall population which in general drinks too much alcohol, in the hope that this will help improve health. However, we all know the Scottish drinking culture has nothing to with price and all about our way of thinking, you’re happy you drink, you’re sad you drink, you’re out with your mates you drink, a baby’s been born you drink, it’s been a hard week you drink, and we do all this while being great at time keeping so we can be within the 10am-10pm buying hours. What we need is a big shift in attitudes if we are to shake this drinking culture, legislation is great as long as it comes with the mindset to change as well.
Just like we’ve seen with drug deaths, not enough funding is being given to rehabilitation and treatment, and I don’t see many commitments from ministers to increase funding like drugs have seen. If we get caught up in the mist and media hysteria of drug deaths in Scotland we might be at risk of losing focus on other substance abuses. With the current living crisis that is upon us this situation will only get worse, as people feel the undeniable stress of trying to keep their heads above water, mental health, social deprivation, and physical health will all take a nose dive and these elements are at the core of why people have substance addictions in the first place. We can pore all the funding into rehabilitation, and we should indeed transform the addiction treatment system in Scotland, but if people can’t afford to live a decent life this will mostly be in vain. So let’s focus less on the price now and more on the culture, the non-stop marketing, the health response and the readily availability of alcohol.