Scotland's alcohol problem: It is time to put people's health before profits – Dr Alastair MacGilchrist

Scotland’s problem with alcohol is well-established. Every day, almost 100 people in Scotland are hospitalised and three people lose their lives because of alcohol.

Alcohol puts immense pressure on our overstretched NHS, on families and relationships, and on our communities. But if that’s not enough reason to act, then it’s worth noting that it is bad for the economy.

The societal cost of alcohol to Scotland, including health and social-care costs, labour and productivity loss, crime and the value of lives prematurely lost, is estimated to be a staggering £9.6 billion a year. No wonder, then, that the Scottish Government wants to take forward one of the World Health Organization’s “best buys” to reduce alcohol harms: restricting alcohol marketing.

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Alcohol marketing is omnipresent in Scottish society. We are bombarded by alcohol advertisements and promotions every day on public transport, billboards, in outdoor and public spaces, when we attend events and sports games, through TV and radio, and online. We are simply unable to go about our day without a strategically-placed nudge to have a drink or two. This highly effective marketing influences how much and how often we drink.

Is it any wonder, then, that one in five of us drink at hazardous or harmful levels? In 2021, tragically 1,245 people died directly as a result of alcohol, with changed consumption patterns as a result of the pandemic meaning this is the second year running the number has increased. Death rates are 5.6 times higher for people living in our most deprived communities compared to the least deprived and alcohol is a leading cause of premature death in Scotland.

The economic case against policies to reduce alcohol harm in Scotland is weak. Despite the success of minimum unit pricing (MUP) in reducing alcohol-specific deaths in its first full year of implementation, the industry has grown in size since the introduction of this policy and now contributes £8.1bn to the economy (note: it costs us more so is a net drain on the economy).

This confounds the alarmist claims made by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others at the time about the threat MUP posed to the industry. Now the SWA is again being shrill in its opposition to the Scottish Government’s proposed marketing restrictions, despite the fact that 99 per cent of whisky produced in Scotland is exported to countries which would be unaffected by these restrictions.

Instead of living up to our hard-drinking stereotype and turning a blind eye to the devastating impacts of alcohol problems on us and our communities, let’s be ambitious and try to shape a society where alcohol is no longer a constant in our lives. Where we have richer, more varied ways of marking occasions, celebrating life events, supporting our sports teams and spending time with friends and family.

Excess drinking damages the human body and society as a whole (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Yes, alcohol will always have an important role in our lives but by being bombarded by alcohol marketing it has become part of our culture, and it doesn’t need to be this way. Let’s seize the opportunity of the Scottish Government’s proposed marketing restrictions and put health and well-being of future generations ahead of corporate interests, let’s expose the alcohol industry’s unfounded claims and ultimately make Scotland a better place to live.

Dr Alastair MacGilchrist is chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems

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