Alcohol deaths in Scotland reach the highest level in 13 years

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Alcohol Scotland
Alcohol Scotland

Alcohol deaths in Scotland have increased to the highest level in 13 years, according to official figures published on Thursday that further undermined the SNP’s flagship minimum pricing policy.

The National Records of Scotland (NRS) disclosed that 1,245 people died from alcohol-specific causes in 2021, a five per cent rise on the previous year’s total and the largest death toll since 2008.

Scotland had an alcohol-related death rate of 22.3 people per 100,000 of the population, the highest level in the UK and far more than the English rate of 13 in 2020, the last year for which figures were available.

The report also disclosed that the death rate was 5.6 times higher in Scotland's poorest communities than in the wealthiest. Experts expressed concern that higher drinking during lockdown was now feeding through into increased deaths.

Nicola Sturgeon’s government introduced a minimum unit price (MUP) of 50p in an effort to raise the cost of cheap alcohol and force problem drinkers to cut their consumption.

But a report by Public Health Scotland in June found problem drinkers had instead cut back on food and heating to continue to fund their alcohol habit.

The drink death figures were published the week after it emerged that Scotland's drug death tally fell by less than one per cent last year, despite Nicola Sturgeon claiming it was her government's “national mission” to tackle the epidemic.

‘SNP have been found wanting’

Scotland’s death rate remains almost five times higher than that of England and Wales, and 3.8 times higher than that of the next worst European nation, Norway.

The Scottish Tories said that it was the “poorest who were being let down most by the SNP government’s failure” to tackle either drugs or drink deaths.

Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and the Tories’ shadow health secretary, said: “As with the drug deaths epidemic, the crisis has only got worse on Nicola Sturgeon’s watch – and it’s those from our most deprived areas who are suffering the most.

“Again, the SNP government have been found wanting. They wrongly saw Minimum Unit Pricing as the panacea, when, in reality, it’s a blunt instrument to tackle a very complex problem.”

The figures showed two-thirds of those who died from conditions caused by alcohol were male, while the average age of death was 58.7 years for females and 59.7 years for males.

Over the last five years, Inverclyde, Glasgow City, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, Dundee City, North Ayrshire and Renfrewshire council areas all had death rates higher than the Scottish average.

Last year’s death toll remained below the 1,417 recorded in 2006. The total declined sharply to 968 in 2012 but has since increased again.

Elinor Jayne, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), said: “This is the second year in a row that the number of people dying directly because of alcohol has increased, and the impact that the pandemic has had on drinking patterns is now a real worry.”

Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: “The number of alcohol deaths has increased sharply across the UK since the Covid-19 pandemic and research suggests many more lives will be cut short if urgent action is not taken.”

Maree Todd, the SNP’s Public Health Minister, said: “These figures show that Scotland continues to have a problematic relationship with alcohol, and we are determined to do all we can to address that.

“The introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing has helped reduce alcohol sales to their lowest on record, but we are determined to do even more to tackle the scale of alcohol-specific deaths.”

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