No one can deny that alcohol is one of the most serious social problems facing us at the moment. In 2010, there were just over 1300 alcohol related deaths in Scotland. But in the same year, there were over 7,100 in England and Wales. However, this is not a problem which is confined to Scotland, and we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of Scotland-only solutions.
Since 1991, deaths caused by alcohol have increased in Scotland by 110% – but over the same time they have increased by 111% in England & Wales. Clearly there is something other than the ‘Buckfast Culture’ going on here. If you compare the figures north and south of the border since 1979, you actually see two very different pictures – and its one which suggests the causes are different.
As you can see from the graph, deaths have been increasing in England & Wales pretty much consistently since the early 1980s. There was a slight pause from 1988 – 93, and since 2008. However, the Scottish figures are pretty static all through the 1980s, and not really starting their rise until 1994. This increase stalled around 2002/3 and if anything has fallen since then slightly.
So what can we infer from this? Well, it seems that price and affordability are a big determinant for peopl e in England & Wales, but there seems to be no such corelation in Scotland. When there is a recession in the UK, deaths fall (or stop rising) in England, but the recession of the early 1980’s had no effect in Scotland and recent falls north of the Border began well before the current financial problems. The fact that these deaths are concentrated in areas of high deprivation – where by definition people have less money to start with – indicates that the cost of alcohol does not prevent consumption as much as might be assumed.
Looking at this evidence, I would say while increasing the price of alcohol will have an effect in England, it wont have as much of a benefit here in Scotland. With the legal problems associated with minimum pricing, I would expect the UK Government to look at increasing duty levels to increase general price levels – indeed this is the widely accepted explanation for the fall from 1979 to 1983 when the Thathcer government increased duty levels substantially. This would make the Scottish Government’s minimum pricing legislation moot, although I would expect the SNP to kick up a fuss about increasing the price of Scotch Whisky.
But if affordability has limited effect in Scotland, what can we do here to reduce the tragedy affecting the country. Well, since 1999 there have been a number of initiatives designed to educate people about the effect of alcohol. This combined with the abilility of local authorities to restrict the consumption of alcohol in open spaces seems to have had an effect. However, we need to step this up considerably if we are to bring down the number of deaths.
Just as we have programmes designed to wean people off smoking tobacco, we must have similar programmes to tackle alcohol addiction. High profile campaigns to get folk to reduce their consumption, and if need be to seek help for addiction will lower deaths. It is this that the Scottish Government should be concentrating on, and then Scotland will see a healthier relationship with alcohol.